Arts Theatre, London – until 13 May 2017
I am named after a Tommy. My great uncle Private John Warburton of the Lancashire Fusiliers who lied about his age to join up in 1914 as a bugler, later a stretcher-bearer killed on the Somme 23 May 1917 not in direct fighting but because after the regiment had been decimated at the Second Battle of Ypres he was drafted in to kitchen duty and while preparing dinner a German shell came through the roof of the cookhouse and killed him on the spot.
So I already wanted to like The Wipers Times, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s affectionate true-story depiction of the trench journalists who discovered a printing press in the basement of a convent in the Belgian town of Ypres early in 1916 and produced a spoof newspaper until the end of the War. Maybe John Warburton had a copy spread on his counter while peeling potatoes and was laughing at one of their jokes when the German shell took his head off at the shoulders.
Any piece about the First World War risks inevitable comparison with both Blackadder and Oh, What A Lovely War! Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s stage version of their more realistic television play screened by the BBC in 2013 neatly captures their schoolboy humour but is just a bit too schoolboyish in its execution. The paper’s jolly japes and comic poems are put across as music hall skits and although the cast work as hard as possible to ensure the old jokes hit home, they’re often too feeble even for skilled resuscitation.
Despite some excellent doubling by Dan Tetsell the ‘top brass’ are very broadly cartooned, but as front-line officers James Dutton and George Kemp are period-perfect in giving their laddish foot-soldiers the rum-rationed optimistic encouragement they don’t actually share. Although the parallels of the Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie characters from Blackadder Goes Forth are obvious, these were real people and there’s an missed opportunity to develop the characters and provide more back-story: we briefly see Dutton’s Fred Roberts, the paper’s founder, on a home visit but learn nothing of Kemp’s Jack Pearson apart from the fact he smokes perpetually and has cultivated a fine Edwardian moustache.
In real life, Pearson escaped conviction in a court case when he ran down and killed a pedestrian in Whitehall while driving a red Daimler at the then breakneck speed of 30 mph. It’s the sort of yarn you’d probably tell your mates in ‘The Foresters’ Arms’ the impromptu pub he runs on the battlefield.
Like Kemp’s moustache, The Wipers Times needs a trim, but the warmth of the enterprise cannot be over-stated: it’s an honest and heartfelt tribute to men who went through an absolute living hell, yet found humour even within its gates.
We will remember them.
Trivium: rather charmingly, a hundred years later, the tradition of The Wipers Times is being continued by American troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan: The Duffel Blog
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