The Wipers Times by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Review by Lee Farley
THE Wipers Times is set during the First World War and tells the true story of Captain Roberts, Lieutenant Pearson and their regiment, who set up and print a satirical magazine full of cartoons, puns, and anti-establishment jibes.
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman are in familiar territory here, having both worked extensively on Private Eye, but on this project they are in need of a dramatist to help them construct a memorable piece of theatre.
The First World War is familiar territory for satire that attacks the ruling class. You’d be forgiven for assuming Oh, What A Lovely War and Blackadder Goes Forth had pretty much exhausted this theme, and The Wipers Times does little to challenge their status in popular culture.
There are some interesting poems, songs, facts and information directly lifted from the real Wipers Times. It’s fascinating, for example, to learn that David Lloyd George wanted the frontline soldiers to sober up – a good example of how the elite officer class had little understanding of the needs of the ordinary tommies who were laying down their lives at the Somme.
So the story itself is historically intriguing, but good drama requires character, relationships, conflict, empathy, emotional engagement, psychological honesty and complexity. The Wipers Times does not fully explore any of these areas. None of the characters have back stories or establish any engaging relationships. The tommies in the regiment are interchangeable stereotypes, and the officers are entirely played for laughs.
The uninspiring dialogue is structured around jokes and exposition. The characters reveal information, rather than engage in believable conversations with each other. Consequently, a lack of empathy means we struggle to care about what happens. There are no barriers to the characters achieving their objective – the paper gets printed, people buy it, the jokes help to alleviate the horror of the front line. There is no dramatic conflict, no tension. Good old British humour saves the day.
Dora Schweitzer’s design makes effective use of the space, the cast moving furniture between scenes could become repetitive and tiresome, but is accompanied by some fun wartime songs. The acting company are full of energy, there’s some entertaining choreography, and the direction is fast-moving. George Kemp employs subtlety and control as Lieutenant Pearson, with strong support from Dan Mersh as General Mitford and Sergeant Tyler, and Clio Davies in a number of underwritten women’s roles.
Hislop and Newman’s point seems to be that satire and humour are essential in times of trauma, in order to keep perspective, expose the futility of war, and challenge authority. This could have a contemporary relevance, but this production is not particularly interested in modern parallels. Almost every scene is purely an opportunity for some old-school music hall songs and comedy. Despite the historical interest, there is not enough drama here to maintain the two hours-plus running time.