“The war is not funny sir” begins one of the characters in The Wipers Times. “I've a feeling that may be the point” barks his senior officer. For all the exploration of the Great War on stage over the years it's fair to say that the subject is infrequently met with any degree of humour or light-hearted abandon. Nick Newman and Ian Hislop's gentle and well delivered play based on the real life story of a satirical trench newspaper that was distributed between 1916 and 1918 attempts to redress that balance. Rather than offer an anachronistic 'send up' of the situation a la Blackadder, the beauty of this carefully researched play comes in its attention to detail and the fact that we are hearing a first-hand account, offering an alternative perspective on life on The Western Front.
If it's a little formulaic in its constructed narrative it's easy to forgive due to its well intentioned exploration of a rarely-known aspect of the First World War that's packed with plenty of British Stiff Upper Lip and make-do-and-mend attitude. Amid the horrors of the trenches a printing press is discovered, sparking the idea for a trench-wide periodical that brings some much-needed humour to the 'over-by-Christmas' attitude and measly rum rations that otherwise keep our troops afloat. What hits you is the importance of comedy amongst the horror and the weight that the fate of the paper holds with the moral of the troops, particularly its Editor and Sub Editor Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson. As bombs and shells explode around them and go almost unnoticed, the joy and distraction found in the creation and distribution of the paper seems enough to win the war by itself.
Newman and Hislop pack the play with their own distinguishable brand of humour yet never overshadow the comedy of the paper itself which is given plenty of room to shine through its performance of real-life adverts and pastiche of music hall numbers. A little safe in its construction the piece could survive pushing these elements further and squeezing more stage time out of the material that already exists. I found myself less interested in the fate of the paper and Roberts' own life which sees him return on leave to a meal at The Ritz where the horrors of the war are somewhat glossed over due to his fondness for the Times. Instead I wanted to hear more from the paper and the numerous contributions the editors acquired daily that seem to ooze with theatrical potential.
Caroline Leslie's production is swift and economical, perhaps feeling slightly cramped and fussy on the Arts Theatre stage. Dora Schweitzer's design creates a multi-functional playing space that draws parallels between the dark confines of the theatre itself and the trenches and dugouts in which most of the drama is set and well choreographed set changes keep the pace flowing. Scenes are short and quite often filmic in nature perhaps reflecting the piece's original form as a TV movie. The added theatricality of the setting including the music hall send-ups are ripe for mining and could be pushed further to cement the piece in its new chosen genre.
It's consistently well played by a hard-working ensemble cast. James Dutton is strong and likeable as Captain Roberts against George Kemp's more considered Pearson. Supporting characters threaten to burst at the seams attempting to avoid stereotyping of the ridiculed 'upper orders' but there's an honesty felt in the delivery of the troops that contrasts nicely against the comedy of the paper and reflects its youthful energy.
Whilst it's not quite laugh a minute as one pull quote suggests there are enough bad puns and swipes at Fleet Street to keep you consistently merry against the sound of advancing artillery. At best the play serves as a reminder that even in the darkest moments humour can illuminate a way through and that British human spirit is in many ways undefeatable.
The Wipers Times tickets are now on sale.