sat 18/05/2024

The Wipers Times, Arts Theatre review - 'dark comedy from the trenches' | reviews, news & interviews

The Wipers Times, Arts Theatre review - 'dark comedy from the trenches'

The Wipers Times, Arts Theatre review - 'dark comedy from the trenches'

Ian Hislop's engaging First World War play reaches the West End

James Dutton (left) and George Kemp as Captain Roberts and Lieutenant PearsonPhotographs by Alastair Muir

You may be having a moment of déjà vu, as Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s new play (which lands in the West End after a UK tour) was previously a BBC film (shown in 2013), and a very fine one too, covering as it does a true story from the First World War.

Now, with added music by Nick Green, they have turned The Wipers Times into an intimate stage piece.

In the mud and mayhem of Flanders, in a bombed-out building in the Belgian town of Ypres (mis-pronounced Wipers by British Tommies), two officers – Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton) and Lieutenant Jack Pearson (George Kemp) – discover an abandoned printing-press and have the spiffing idea to create a newspaper for the troops. The Wipers Times was no jingoistic journal – far from it – rather a resolutely subversive and darkly comic newspaper designed to lift the spirits of the men on the frontline. If Private Eye, the satirical news magazine that Hislop has edited since 1986, has a predecessor, then The Wipers Times fits the bill.

Clio Davies in The Wipers Times, Arts TheatreThe Wipers Times wasn't just a toffs' plaything. As its fame and popularity grew, squaddies became contributors too, and the two officers were greatly aided by Sergeant Tyler (Dan Tetsell), who had been a printer back in civvy street and made the clapped-out printing machines they found work. (Art imitating life here, as any journalist of a certain vintage will attest. If editors were the officers, printers were the NCOs of the hot metal days, and rescued many a squaddie reporter from an egregious error they spotted while compositing the type.)

At the heart of the play is the relentlessly jokey relationship between Roberts and Pearson – neatly contrasted with that of senior officers who were safely away from the frontline. Lt Colonel Howfield (Sam Ducane) – who thinks the newspapermen should be tried for treason – is as humourless as he is clueless about the realities of life in the trenches. “The War is not funny, sir,” he stiffly tells the rather more sanguine General Mitford (Tetsell). “I've a feeling that may be the point,” comes the dry reply.

The rest of cast give great support, with some doubling roles, such as Clio Davies (pictured above), who plays a nurse, a brothel keeper and a do-gooder. The play, which lacks a sense of context and backstory for anyone except Roberts, is however nicely structured, bookended with Roberts' failed attempt at landing a job in Fleet Street after the war. The music allows neat transitions between scenes and the paper's spoof ads (“Are you suffering from optimism?”, “Do you have a drink habit? No? I can help you get one in two days”) are nicely parlayed in the style of music hall songs and comic sketches.

Caroline Leslie's direction could do with a bit more zip, but this is an interesting story engagingly told.

At the heart of the play is the relentlessly joky relationship between Roberts and Pearson


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters