The Wipers Times (Richmond Theatre)

The Wipers Times (Richmond Theatre, until Saturday, September 30th and touring)

“The war is not funny, sir,” claims an officer unamused by the excesses of a satirical trench newspaper in the brilliantly conceived The Wipers Times, which is both hilarious and heartwarming.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s play (which was originally produced as an award-winning TV film three years ago) boldly follows in the footsteps of Oh! What a Lovely War, getting audiences to laugh at the vulgarity of war and discover light in the gloom of tragedy and trauma.

While Joan Littlewood’s famous piece broadly mocked war using the absurdity of a pierrot show, this new play tells the true story of how a group of soldiers cheered the troops during the First World War after finding a printing press in a bombed out building in Ypres (known as Wipers by Tommies unable to pronounce it).

In addition to the dramatic narrative, the play uses jokes and sketches directly from the pages of the paper and as such works better than the film to give a wry view of the theatre of war in a larger than life music hall style. Nick Green’s musical compositions have an authentic period ring and you could easily believe the songs are directly from 1916-18 when the play is set.

Director Caroline Leslie ensures that each character (every one played to perfection by a five-star cast) retains their individuality and even if the narrative means they are sketched rather than fully drawn, this only adds to the sense of the ephemeral, passing pleasures on brutal battlegrounds.

Painstaking research by the writers (underlined in a fascinating post-show Q&A session on first night) ensures there is an authenticity throughout, and a real sense of humanity and managing to raise a smile in the horror of conflict shines through.

The fact that this is a true story, of fighting men poking fun at the enemy and at their own high command, gives the play a cutting edge and one can only marvel at the camaraderie and determination of those involved, especially as the sound of bombing and gunfire echoes around Dora Schweitzer’s bleak set.

The performances are strong, with the members of the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters, the soldiers who first found the printing press in the spring of 1916, especially well-portrayed. James Dutton’s earnest and optimistic Captain Fred Roberts and George Kemp’s intensely likeable Lieutenant Jack Pearson are very much the beating heart of the story, their indomitable leadership providing hope and strength to their weary men.

Kevin Brewer sums up much of the resilient make do and mend spirit that beams out of so many stories set in the war as the resourceful printer Henderson, while Dan Mersh seems to have a wicked eyebrow permanently raised as the down to earth General Mitford who understands the value of the publication. Sam Ducane is a gloriously officious and outraged Lt.Col Howfield, mercilessly mocked in some of the newspaper’s spoofs.

Between them Chris Levens, Jake Morgan, Joseph Reed, Clio Davies and Emilia Williams take on a variety of roles, with every single player an important part of the whole. If there were any justice at awards time this cast would win easily for best company.

As a whole the production gives off a warm glow of nostalgia, a clever irony given that the music is new and The Wipers Times itself, which ran for 23 issues, changing title slightly wherever the regiment was deployed, was very nearly airbrushed from history. There is a tangible sense of the piece being a work of admiration and love by the writers, which is amplified by the production team and cast to create one of the plays of the year.

While the heroes might have been handed military medals with reluctance, and struggled to find obituary space when they died in the 1960s, The Wipers Times awards them their rightful place in history with genuine warmth and affection.

Photo, Alistair Muir

David Guest