The Wipers TimesFollowing on from their award-winning 2013 TV film of the same name, writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman bring the true story of a satirical newspaper written and published by soldiers on the Front Line during the First World War to the stage.

Ok, so let’s the title out of the way first, shall we? It comes from, either, the wrong or the deliberately witty way British Tommies pronounced Ypres, the name of a town in Belgium that saw some of the most ferocious battles of the conflict.

It was here in 1916, the 24 Division Sherwood Foresters under the command of Captain F J Roberts (James Dutton) discovered a printing press left behind in a bombed out ruin. With a sergeant in his squad who was formerly a printer in civvy street, Roberts, aided by Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp), hit on the idea of producing a humorous magazine. An idea that immediately got right up the noses of the commanders back at HQ, a safe distance from the action, but had the desired effect and did wonders for the moral of men in the thick of the battle and facing death on a moment-by-moment basis.

On the surface it seems a good idea for a play; celebrating the great British taste for gallows humour and the knack of laughing in the face of adversity. And it comes at time when we need that knack as much as ever.

But despite being delivered with warmth by a game cast, its not a story that really has the legs for a two hour play as scenes portraying conflicts with the top brass become repetitive, and weakly drawn characters feel all too stereotypical — from the slightly thick squaddie to the upper class twits in charge of the war.

And even if you give the humour in the magazine a you-had-to-be-there benefit of the doubt, it really hasn’t aged well and is often just not funny.

Magazine jokes are here performed as musical hall skits as an aside from life in the trenches. The same sort of theatrical device was used in Oh, What A Lovely War! but sadly the patchy material here means it falls some way short of achieving the biting satire of Joan Littlewood’s masterpiece. And the fractured narrative as we continually move between battlefield and music hall gives everything a stop start feel that saps the pace.

The Wipers Times did its job and lasted for as long as was needed, ending with an edition called The Better Times that greeted the 1918 Armistice. When the end to hostilities comes a character remarks that after all the horror and death things rather just fizzled out, and the same could be said of this play.

Reviewed by Tony Peters
Photo: Alastair Muir

THE WIPERS TIMES plays at the ARTS Theatre until 13 May 2017