Last Updated on 8th November 2016
The Wipers Times
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich.
7 November 2016
Written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, and adapted for the stage from their 2014 TV film, this true story tells of a group of soldiers of the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters, who, upon discovering a printing press in a bombed out ruin in Ypres in 1916, printed the satirical Wipers Times. (So called because of soldiers unable to pronounce Ypres called it Wipers.) The resulting paper was subversive, punny, mawkish and essential reading for the soldiers. Twenty-three issues were published, often edited under enemy fire, between 1916 until just after the end of the First World War.
It’s an interesting story, and its appeal to Hislop and Newman is obvious, satire still an important part of our comedy scene. This is one play in which I would also urge you to buy a programme, containing many articles from the Wipers Times, and highly informative, it’s a worthwhile read! As for the play itself, conventionally structured, it feels a little safe, given the subject matter, and doesn’t quite reach the biting satire that it could have, despite some well-aimed barbs at The Daily Mail.
As editors, Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson, James Dutton and George Kemp work well together, especially in conveying the friendship between the two men. However, reflecting their status and conditions of the time, the characters are hidebound by their stiff upper lips, and too often they appear as caricatures, rather than real men under extreme circumstances. Peter Lasasso is excellent as innocent soldier Dodd, getting the funniest lines and showing great versatility in bringing the Wipers articles to life, and here he was well matched by Kevin Brewer as Henderson, particularly strong as a music hall turn. Jake Morgan is equally effective in the ensemble, but the female roles are too sketchy for Eleanor Brown to add much life too. The threat to the Wipers Times came from the ranks above who hated its subversive nature, and here Sam Ducane was highly effective as snobbish Lieutenant Colonel Howfield, demanding the paper be closed down whilst simultaneously displaying all the attributes the satire was aimed at.
Ironically, the threat to the paper was not strong, and there is never a feeling that it was under any serious threat of closure or its editors threatened with court marshal. This lessens the drama considerably, especially in the second half when there is a distinct lack of tension, and Henderson is the only death, and casualties and the effects of war are kept to a minimum and largely unexplored. The play works best when it stages articles from the paper, and here the ensemble excels in the sketches and songs, with Dan Tetsell in particularly fine form throughout the play.
Falling far short of the biting satire of Oh What A Lovely War and Blackadder Goes Forth, the play is an effective tribute to an extraordinary publication, and there are some moving moments that capture the fear and homesickness of the soldiers. It’s not a great play, but it is enjoyable, and its staging here in Armistice Week gives it an added poignancy
Until 12 November 2016