Fringe Box



Stage Review: The Wipers Times

Published on: 17 Oct, 2017
Updated on: 17 Oct, 2017

The Sherwood Foresters prepare to go over the top.

By Alice Fowler

Not often is a production at the Yvonne Arnaud sold out from the night it opens. Those lucky enough to have nabbed seats for The Wipers Times, on show this week, have a treat on their hands.

Fresh from a successful run in the West End, this is Ian Hislop’s and Nick Newman’s tribute to the subversive, satirical Flanders newspaper that ran for two years from 1916, and to the brave men who produced it.

The Wipers Times – its name drawn from the Tommies’ mispronunciation of Ypres – began when a group of soldiers of the Sherwood Foresters discovered a printing press in the bombed out ruins. Led by Captain Fred Roberts, who became its editor, and Lieutenant Jack Pearson, its sub-editor, the paper used a peculiarly British weapon – humour – to help its readers survive the horrors of front-line life.

‘Not another poem’: Capt Roberts (James Dutton), Lt. Pearson (George Kemp) and Sgt Tyler (Dan Mersh) read contributors’ copy.

Drawing on this largely forgotten piece of history, Hislop and Newman provide a spirited display of the value of laughter in hard times. At one point humour is even equated with civilisation itself: a sentiment that surely must come from the pen of Hislop. Certainly there are jokes aplenty in this production, with real Wipers Times’ skits brought to life, music-hall style, on stage.

So much has been written about World War One, for stage and screen as well as print, that it can be difficult to avoid falling into cliché. Hislop and Newman largely escape this by concentrating on the newspaper itself, and the officers and men who will it into existence.

George Kemp as Lt. Pearson seeks the perfect pun.

James Dutton gives a winning performance as self-appointed editor Captain Roberts, a man who never uses one pun when two will do. George Kemp as Lieutenant Pearson also shines, the two men sharing a lively on-stage charisma. Dan Mersh plays the indispensable Sergeant Tyler – who handily works as a compositor back in Blighty – and much mirth arises from his search for letters and paper so the press can roll.

While explosions are frequent and dust rains down on stage, the German army remains unseen (though they are certainly heard, singing humourless songs about how much they hate the British).

Instead, the real enemy of The Wipers Times is the army’s own top brass. Sam Ducane puts in a fine performance as Lieutenant Colonel Howfield, who abhors the paper’s subversive cheek; while Dan Mersh (again) plays the more enlightened General who, fortunately for Captain Roberts and co, realises the paper’s role in the direst of times.

This is a version of World War One with remarkably few casualties. Serious aspects of the war are touched upon – the gulf of understanding between the front and home, the temperance movement’s efforts to ban rum rations and the temptations of French brothels, among others. Mostly though this a patriotic romp through First World War history in which the real winner – of course – is humour itself.

The Wipers Times continues at the Yvonne Arnaud theatre until Saturday 21 October. See

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