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The Wipers Times, Arts Theatre, review: ‘Light and hearty but little power’

PUBLISHED: 12:00 04 April 2017

The Wipers Times. Picture: Alaistair Muir

The Wipers Times. Picture: Alaistair Muir

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Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s extraordinary true story of how a satirical magazine was produced in the trenches of WW1

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s extraordinary true story of how a satirical magazine was produced in the trenches of WW1 has already been a BBC TV film. Now a stage show re-treads the same ground, celebrating the power of humour to relieve the tedium and terror of war for the British Tommy.

Caroline Leslie’s deft production is framed by the post-war efforts of former Captain Fred Roberts to get work as a Fleet Street journalist based solely on his time as editor of The Wipers’ Times (named after the British mangling of the Belgian town Ypres) Reminding us of the tragedy of mass unemployment for many of those who served, it flashes back to 1916 and the camaraderie between James Dutton’s Roberts and sub-editor Jack Pearson (George Kemp) with a flurry of gags, parodies, and music hall style songs culled from the original paper.

Many of the jokes and skits are at the expense of superiors often far behind the frontline. Naturally staff officers view the efforts of our plucky hacks as ‘an incitement to mutiny’ and try unsuccessfully to shut it down. In reality the paper was probably a useful pressure valve and spirit stiffener for the ordinary solider against the extremes of war.

Some of these old gags now feel hackneyed but might have been more poignant if contextualised by a backdrop of the real dangers they faced.

But Leslie keeps things light and hearty, and although the story retains its fascination it suffers by comparison with Joan Littlewood’s politically punchier Oh What A Lovely War.

A young ensemble cast manage well with often underdeveloped characters – fleshing out the resourceful Sergeant who obtained not one but three printing presses whilst ducking German Artillery seemed an opportunity missed. All this makes the two hour running time feel a little long for a production that never quite achieves its potential power.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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