Theatre review - The Wipers Times, Manchester Opera House
PUBLISHED: 16:01 01 November 2017 | UPDATED: 16:01 01 November 2017
The Wipers Times, written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, is entertaining, enlightening and beautifully done, writes Kate Houghton.
The Wipers Times is based on a true story, a story I can’t believe we had no knowledge of for almost 100 years after it all took place. Discovered by Ian Hislop while working on a documentary for Radio 4, The Wipers Times was a trench newspaper, written and published by the men living in the trenches of Ypres in 1916. Its success along the lines meant it followed its creators - Captain Fred Roberts, Lieutenant Jack Pearson of the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters and their sergeant, who had been a printer before joining the army - to the Somme, Passchendaele and pretty much every hell on earth location along the Western Front.
Students for generations have studied the ‘conflict literature’ of the First World War, focussing mainly on three poets. Much of this was written away from the trenches and after the war had finished. What was written in The Wipers Times was written, proofed and printed while shells flew overhead, while each night men were being sent over the top into No Mans Land and while each day was passed in the mud and filth of the trenches. It offers an insight into the British mindset when placed in impossible circumstances that no other writing can possibly do; it is quintessentially British: anti-establishment, tweaking the noses of the officer class, irreverent and never, not once, negative or complaining.
At this point you might be thinking the play is rather a tear-fest, as so many things relating to WW1 are and because of everything we’ve learned to date about this conflict – the misery, the loss, the senseless waste. Well, it’s not.
Opening in a newspaper office after the war’s end, we see Captain Roberts applying for a job on Fleet Street, where a bemused and supercilious editor is very doubtful about the experience Roberts could possibly bring. When asked if he has any journalistic experience, Roberts raises a brow…and we are transported to the trenches, and the beginning of our story.
The majority of the jokes, the songs and the events in the play are lifted from the original issues of The Wipers Times. Every joke we hear was written by a man who was there, whether that be Roberts and Pearson or a submission from an infantryman on the front line. The songs we hear during the very deft scene changes were created from poetry submitted to the paper (much to Roberts’ dismay, as he loathed the stuff). Fake adverts, spoofs and satires all formed part of the original and bring life to the production. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, even though our sense of humour has changed over the century since. What was uproarious in 1916 seems rather tame today, of course, but this really isn’t the point.
The story swings along at a good pace, with humour carrying us along, until the realities of our heroes’ lives come to the fore. A poem written in honour of a fallen ‘mate’; a list of names of men lost; even the discovery of a trench filled with German dead, killed by their own gas, all hit home with a pathos made keener by the laughter that came before.
The relationship between Roberts and Pearson (played by James Dutton and George Kemp) is beautifully portrayed; the irrepressibly optimistic Roberts and the dryly witty Pearson bouncing off one another just as you imagine they must have back in 1916. Even through Robert’s hospitalisation following a gas attack, they maintain their calm, ‘just a scratch, old boy’ demeanour; something we’re still rather good at today, I think.
After the war both men returned to the occupations they had trained for before: engineering and mining. Roberts was rejected by Fleet Street – his qualifications in Mining Engineering not considered helpful, his experience in the trenches dismissed. Both left the UK, settling in Canada and Argentina, and both made almost no mention of their publication again.
We have to offer thanks to Hislop and Newman not only for creating this excellent night out, but also for all their efforts in bringing The Wipers Times to our attention. We shouldn’t be too surprised though, much of its content is mirrored today in Private Eye, from the fake adverts to the satire and poking fun at bureaucracy and politics – it’s good to know some things never change.