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The Wipers Times

An extraordinary true story of the satirical newspaper created in the mud and mayhem of the Somme.
The Wiper's Times Photo credit: Philip Tull
Oxford Playhouse, Mon 18 September - Sat 23 September 2017, Mon 3 September - Sat 8 September

Following a sold-out UK tour in 2016, and a hit run in the West End, critically acclaimed play The Wipers Timeswill be coming to the Oxford Playhouse. It is a stage adaptation of Ian Hislop (Private Eye) and Nick Newman's award-winning BBC film and tells the story of the satirical newspaper which was born and circulated in the trenches of World War One.

The narrative follows the amazing true story of the paper being produced by British army officers for two whole years, against the odds, after two of them stumbled across a printing press. The play is stuffed with comic sketches and spoofs from the creative pens of those on the front line, found in the funny and resolutely cheerful paper. It's a story which shows humanity at its most resilient - harnessing humour as a way to stay alive in the darkest and most hopeless places.

September 4, 2018
Timeless tragi-comedy in the trenches

You really couldn’t make it up. Ian Hislop really did unearth a newspaper which could almost have been a blueprint for Private Eye - but was in fact produced some 35 years before the Eye was born, by the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters in Ypres in 1916. A century later, this stage play by Hislop and his long-term collaborator Nick Newman tells the story of how The Wipers Times came into being when Captain Fred Roberts, his Lieutenant Jack Pearson and civvie street printer Sergeant Tyler discovered a manual pedal-powered printing machine lying abandoned in the bombed ruins and decided to use it for their own satirical purposes, with immediate success.

The real hero of the piece is humour. The play celebrates its enduring place in the British psyche. What gets the Brits through the trials and tribulations of the Great War is not pure po-faced patriotic stoicism but the 'grin and bear it' attitude where the insouciant grin is the better part of valour. The Brits’ irreverent spirit is repeatedly contrasted with the humourlessness of the Hun and his 'hymn of hate'.

There is a real poignancy in the story. Roberts and Pearson, the two chief drivers of the publication, achieved a level of self-actualisation and creativity (and recognition of their achievements) during the war which was lacking in their lives both before and after. It struck me that this is a story often told of women, able to realise their potential during the war years but expected to creep back into the kitchen when the men came home. The story of The Wipers Times is set in a very masculine world. The women seem rather superfluous and pretty peripheral - to be honest, I could have dispensed with all of them (apart from the post-war humourless receptionist, who was a lovely deadpan foil to Roberts’ quick-witted wisecracks).

The central theme is the part the spirit of the paper played in developing and reinforcing the camaraderie binding men together to survive adversity. So the play not only tells the story of the men, but brings the comic satirical newspaper to life, like a character in its own right, telling the story of the Great War from its own highly entertaining perspective, enlivened with music and song (all performed with energy and aplomb throughout).

The set is superb. The seemingly haphazard cluttered wooden structure works really well to provide a backdrop for seamless changes of scene from officers’ mess to muddy trench, or from seedy bordello to far-off Blighty. It is so cleverly designed: for instance, the coils of barbed wire work on so many levels, transforming, when illuminated, into the bright lights of a music hall or the outline of a cartoon speech bubble in which many of the paper’s jokes are animated.

The writing is timeless. It coherently weaves together century-old text, poetry and prose, song lyrics and jokes from the original newspaper with punchy dialogue as epigrammatic as Oscar Wilde and as bristlingly alive with off-the-cuff throwaway humour as Hislop on Have I Got News for You.

Don’t miss this show – if you can’t be in the audience, go to the Playhouse and buy yourself a programme (a bargain, bursting with facsimile material from the original Wipers Times), or the script, or a DVD ... or all three!

September 21, 2017
Humour and humanity amidst the horrors of the trenches in WW1!

In 1916, Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton) and Lieutenant Jack Pearson (George Kemp) were leading a group of soldiers from the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters, engineers and miners shoring up trench walls and fighting ‘the Hun’ in and around the ruins of Ypres in Belgium.

Scavenging in the muck under incessant bombardment and enemy fire, they chanced upon a printing press. This eclectic find could have amounted to nought were it not for the fact that their stalwart Sergeant Tyler (the versatile Dan Mersh – covering 3 parts) had been a printer in civilian life, could fix the press and give it life; and so was born the notion of producing a news sheet of humour and anecdote and advertisement, in the style of Punch (but with humour!) and not the Daily Mail.

Writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have created this play (adapted from their TV movie), which is based on real characters and long forgotten events, to magnificent effect. The theatre is an intimate and immediate medium, giving a sense of being present and sharing a lot of jeopardy; not only from the forces of the Kaiser!

“The Wipers Times” was born as a trench journal, mimicking the malapropisms and absurdities of the day; Ypres itself not really fitting easily into a soldiers’ vernacular, and so being corrupted and called ‘Wipers’.

The staging (designed by Dora Schweitzer) evokes not only the trench with its unsteady boardwalk and doubtful walls, but also the sort of mess room setting that watchers of programmes like Blackadder will recall. Against this scene is an elevated backdrop beyond which lies No-Man’s Land, although here it helpfully doubles as a gallery from which excerpts and vignettes from the copy are performed, giving it life and voice.

While ‘the Bosch’ would sing their “Hassgesang gegen England” (Song of Hate) across No-Man’s land, Tommy Atkins, the humble British soldier, was more irked by the antics and buffoonery of the High Command and rather amused by the lottery of life and death of the P.B.I. (‘poor bloody infantry’), suffused with a good dose of dark humour and the paucity of their rum ration.

Early in the piece, editorship is assumed by Fred; in turn he is ably supported by Jack as deputy, and Tyler is ‘publisher’, much to his delight! Between this odd bunch they manage to keep printing editions with jokes, fake adverts and spoof songs all designed to alleviate the rather thin diet of official propaganda (indeed a sort of ‘fake news’ perhaps!), bearing no resemblance to front line existence. As the Times progresses and more content is needed, additional material is sought from their fellow combatants, although alarmingly for our heroes the running theme is that there is too much poetry!

We switch away from the trenches at times to be shown the sanctuary of HQ, the respite of Madame Fifi’s watering hole or the reaction to the war on the home front.

The distraction of running a paper is well juxtaposed with scenes set beneath the ladders and ramparts just before the troops go over the top. As we know all too well, many would fall in battle and this is very much acknowledged notwithstanding the wit and wise cracking.

Combining lively performances of songs and sketches from the music hall, acting out spoof adverts and articles both withering of waste and valedictory of sacrifice and bravery, the energetic, and in some cases quick changing, cast remind us of the courage under fire that must have been needed by these extraordinary men to produce a much valued tonic for the troops.

But one man’s tonic is another man’s subversion and disorderly conduct (nay, treason!); so many of the ‘top brass’ were not amused! This is amusingly drawn out by some deliciously apoplectic outrage from Lieutenant Colonel Howfield (Sam Duncane; with a cheeky nod to the late great Fulton Mackay’s rendition as his namesake’s prison warden character in Porridge). Of course Howfield and the general staff are safely ensconced (and thus available for lampooning duties) back at HQ; after all he tells his General ‘War is not a laughing matter!’ (you can decide for yourselves!).

All in all, a fascinating story that is both moving and amusing; well worth catching, if you can!

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