As the centenary commemorations of World War I draw to a close it seems fitting that Nick Newman and Ian Hislop’s The Wipers Times returns to the Arts Theatre, despite its writers moving on to new works such as Trial By Laughter there is clearly a deep affection for this play.
The Wipers Times is about a regiment who after finding a battered looking printing press in Ypres and having a printer in their midst in the form of Dan Mersh’s Sgt Tyler they decide to create their own paper “like Punch but with jokes” called The Wipers Times because the British don’t know how to pronounce Ypres and because the printer is lacking in Ys. Captain Roberts (James Dutton) and Lieutenant Pearson (George Kemp) are inexperienced officers and even more inexperienced journalists but with the help of their regiment, they produce a paper that provides entertainment, laughter, and comfort at a time and place where that isn’t in abundance, the story is broken up with short sketches which gives a real edge to this satirical pieces that would be lost if they were just read out. Dutton and Kemp have great chemistry and there is an air of sadness that these men met in these circumstances and not a dinner party somewhere. War can bring you together but it will also tear you apart.
They face adversity in the form of Sam Ducane’s Lieutenant Colonel Howfield who treats The Wipers with contempt, they clearly have too much time on their hands and he feels they are creating a mutiny against officers like him who aren’t on the frontline and seem to be getting handsomely paid. Ducane gives a variety of great performances in this play, including a wonderful disdainful French man photographing the battlefields for the Michelin Guide. I should also add that the last play I saw him got one of my harshest reviews and I am glad to see him do so well. There are also great performances from Dan Mersh, Kevin Brewer, Amar Aggoun and Chris Levens as the soldiers facing an uncertain future on the battlefield and an even more uncertain future off it.
This isn’t necessarily the most diverse production and usually that would be a problem for me but this is ultimately a play about white men, of various classes, in WWI and whilst the female characters put in some great performances with Clio Davies as the brothel owner Madame Fifi and Lady Somersby Temperance supporter with close links to Lloyd George and who Howfield cannot help but fawn over and Emilia Williams as Kate Roberts who worries about her husband as he worries not about war, but when war will end. It is still a shame to see female roles in this clever play descend to whores, wives or nurses but instead, we see men at their most vulnerable whilst remaining rather British about it. I found it interesting that Roberts and Pearson expected to remain in the newspaper industry after the war and found themselves rejected. Was it class entitlement or was it a fair response to fighting in one of the bloodiest battles the world has seen?
The Wipers Times is on until 1 December at the Arts Theatre https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/whats-on/the-wipers-times/