Arts Theatre, London – until 1 December 2018
This touchingly poignant, gentle but funny show successfully shows how laughter helped one group of soldiers get through the war – without diminishing the impact WWI had on them and the world as a whole.
Based on a true story, The Wipers Times is a deeply poignant show that effectively conveys how the discovery of a printing press actually gave hope and laughter to soldiers and provided a distraction from the brutality of war.
The story is set during the First World War, when a group of soldiers led by Captain Roberts uncover a printing press and decide to create a newspaper filled with jokes and sketches as a way to entertain fellow soldiers caught up in the conflict. But entwined with this, the play never lets the audience forget the horror of the war, with a number of devastating incidents along the way that keep the tone balanced between being lively and the sombre.
Throughout, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s script is sharply witty and perceptive – whether it is through the use of humour or in the more serious moments of the show such as when Captain Roberts discusses what the war is like with his wife. Everything in the script has a purpose and a message that is clear to the audience and impacts their reaction.
Caroline Leslie’s production is equally sensitive as it is frank, capturing the strong bond between the group of soldiers right at the heart of it with plenty of humour, but almost immediately brings the audience back down to earth with moments that chill – including the quiet moment before the soldiers go over the top of the trenches to their fate. It is moments like this that add to the depth and understanding of just how important The Wipers Times was to keep their spirits up.
James Smith’s lighting is very important throughout to ensuring that the audience knows exactly how to react whether it is the brightness and liveliness of the music hall segments or the soft and focused lighting used during the reading of a poem dedicated to a fallen soldier. It enhances every emotion that the audience is supposed to feel perfectly.
But it is also the strong bond that is clear between all of the cast members that make this a convincing production. The way in which all of the cast give life to their characters and the lines they deliver, means that there are no jokes that fall flat and are sincerely believed by the audience. In particular, James Dutton as Captain Roberts gradually reveals how much his character depends on the Wiper Times to distract him from the horror of the war. His expressions and mannerisms show an almost obsession with it, as his conversation with his wife reveals and the audience can really see how humour is a mask to protect him from fear. It is a beautifully subtle and heartfelt performance.
Elsewhere, George Kemp as the grounded Lieutenant Pearson is solid support and Sam Ducane is hilarious as the stiff upper lipped Lieutenant Colonel Howfield, with his inspection of the troops a particular stand out moment – a performance that is delightfully pompous.
At times it does feel as though there is not enough plot to keep the show going, meaning that energy levels begin to slow slightly towards the end, losing some of the connection that the audience had with the characters.
But overall, The Wipers Times successfully brings to light this little known story and brings a great balance of humour and poignancy in which to do so. It is a completely unique piece to pay tribute to the soldiers involved with this devastating conflict – brilliantly brought to life in this production.