The Wipers Times is a remarkable play and one that, in the words of its creators, ‘should be required viewing for all children studying the First World War’. The theatre scene has been saturated with productions set in wartime in recent years, but this play offers a fresh and necessary perspective on an overlooked aspect of the war: the humour that developed among the men as a result of the horrors of the trenches.
The play relates the founding of The Wipers Times – a satirical newspaper created in the trenches of Ypres (pronounced as Wipers by the British soldiers) by the 12th Battalion, edited by Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson (played excellently by James Dutton and George Kemp, respectively).
Written by the humourist Ian Hislop and the cartoonist Nick Newman, the authors’ personal connection to the story of The Wipers Times is clear. Both have made a career from the kind of political satire that Roberts and Pearson forged in the madness of the First World War.
After finding an old printing press in a bombed-out trench, the soldiers decide to put it to use and make light of the chaos and horror around them, mocking the higher command as well as their own situation. There is no short supply of gallows humour here, with the men’s easy acceptance of danger almost jarring. It soon becomes clear how important the continuation of this newspaper is to them, at some points worth more than their own safety.
The story of The Wiper’s Times is told in rapid-fire dialogue, accompanied by a combination of poems, sketches and music-hall songs. Many of the gags are taken straight from the pages of the newspaper itself, yet translate remarkably well to modern day, with the audience frequently bursting into fits of laughter.
The play’s complete lack of sentimentality is refreshing and makes it all the more affecting – when the boys go over the top at the Battle of the Somme, we know that not all of them will be returning, despite the jovial mood and wisecracks being made beforehand.
The play excellently portrays the creativity that sprung out of the futility of the war, and would make excellent viewing for anyone wishing to learn about this previously unexplored aspect of life in the trenches.