Pack up your troubles

Rating: 4

The Wiper Times

by Richard Barber 

There can surely be no better example of gallows humour than The Wipers Times. Despite the unimaginable hell of almost constant bombing, a group of soldiers of the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters discovered an abandoned printing press in the bombed-out ruins of Ypres – or wipers as it was known by the Tommies unable to pronounce it correctly – and set about launching a satirical newspaper in 1916 from either side of the Somme.

So there can surely be no better authors of what was first a TV film and now a stage play than Ian Hislop, long-time tilter at windmills from his editorial chair at Private Eye, and the satirical magazine’s trusty cartoonist, Nick Newman. Certainly, you can see what drew both of them to the project.

As Hislop writes in the programme of the play now back again at London’s Arts Theatre following a successful provincial tour: ‘Here was an account of the Great War written not with hindsight but from the vantage of soldiers there at the time and under enemy fire. And, unlike all other accounts we had read, the story was told with immense wit and humour.

‘It didn’t matter that some of the jokes were terrible; the important thing was that they were making jokes at all. The Wipers Times portrayed the quintessential British characteristic of using humour as a coping mechanism. Not making fun of the war – far from it – but finding light in what was otherwise unremitting gloom.’

And, yes, some of the jokes in this slightly overlong production raise more of a groan than a laugh. But Caroline Leslie’s nippy direction keeps the action bowling along as successive short scenes and sketches, with an added dash of music hall songs, give us a flavour of the grim reality of life in the trenches, leavened by the compensating excitement of producing 23 editions of a publication designed to make its readership laugh.

In an ensemble cast, James Dutton as Captain Roberts, The Times’ Editor, and George Kemp as his deputy, Lieutenant Pearson, convincingly represent the still centre in the encircling madness. And there are tender moments, too, as with the opening scene of the second half, in which Roberts’ wife, Kate (a nicely understated Emilia Williams), tries to get her husband to talk about the daily horror of this futile conflict. If it inevitably calls to mind Joan Littlewood's superior, Oh, What a Lovely War!, this nonetheless has plenty to say about life, death and the curative power of laughter.

Until 1 December at the Arts Theatre, London, WC2: 020-7836 8463, www.wiperstimes