“Hearty thanks for your aid and support.”
With those seven simple words one of the most remarkable publications the world has ever seen, at least in terms of the circumstances of its production, ended.
Yet despite the amazing tale behind the production of The Wipers Times, a satirical newspaper put together by a group of soldiers who chanced upon a printing press during the First World War, it isn’t exactly well-known.
The stage version by Nick Newman and Ian Hislop puts that right by bringing the amazing true story behind the newspaper of the trenches to life in this witty and poignant production.
The Wipers Times, so-called because Wipers was the name British soldiers gave to Ypres; the Belgian town well-known as the scene of some of the most gruesome battles in the war, was created by the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters who established it when they stumbled upon a printing press.
What followed was the production of a remarkable 23 editions of a wonderfully subversive, mawkish and hugely funny newspaper which became popular among troops on the frontline.
Of course, it can’t have been all fun and games and the production skilfully balances the joy and exhilaration the soldiers get from The Wipers with the horror of going over the top and losing dear friends in battle.
James Dutton and George Kemp are brilliantly cast as Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson; the creators of The Wipers Times. They make a fine duo as the very British anarchists – fiercely loyal to their cause one moment and mercilessly mocking it the next.
There’s strong support from Dan Mersh as the salt of the earth publisher of The Wipers, Sergeant Tyler, and the wonderfully majorly General Mitford. Meanwhile Sam Ducane stands out as the frightfully correct Lieutenant Colonel Howfield; the antithesis of Captain Roberts and his meddlesome counterparts.
Kevin Brewer (Henderson) and Chris Levens (Dodds) impress too as fellow members of the 24th and Clio Davies turns in some delightful guffaw-inducing cameo performances throughout.
An ingeniously built set allows the action to move at pace from the printing room to the trenches and beyond in seconds, which all keeps the story moving quite beautifully.
Extracts taken straight from The Wipers are brought to life intermittently against the lit backdrop of the stage with great hilarity and it’s quite remarkable that 100 years on the harmless, tongue-in-cheek humour needs no editing at all; in this context it’s almost as funny as it would have been back in the trenches in a war which must have seemed so futile to those on the frontline.
That futility is where the creators of The Wipers found much of their ammunition – it was humour in the face of terror, fun-poking in the face of propaganda.
And that’s where this production finds its true strength - in the incredible capacity of human beings to find humour in the very bleakest of situations. There’s something wonderfully British about the story of The Wipers and Newman and Hislop capture the very essence of the fighting spirit the men who produced it displayed.
Bravo to director Caroline Leslie and her team for taking a 100-year-old triumph and bringing its message of hope, humour and strength to the stage in this delightful production.
The Wipers Times plays at The REP until Saturday 13th October.
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