TIM WALKER reviews The Wipers Times, on at Arts Theatre, London, until December 1, in this week’s Stage Review.
One of the most wearying aspects of Brexit has been the endless harping back to the days when Britain was at war. Boris Johnson likes, of course, to see himself as Churchill, and the way the Sun talks – whether it’s about a football match or anything to do with the ongoing negotiations on mainland Europe – you could be forgiven for thinking the Nazis still held Paris.
Those who have fought in real wars seldom, if ever, want to recall them. The veterans I have met have never banged on about patriotism or talked with bellicosity about other nations. The horror of combat would come across only in their eyes – and the words they would not speak – and, if there is one thing the experience makes them value more than most, it is peace.
That reluctance to acknowledge the awfulness of war was true, too, of the staff of The Wipers Times, the periodical that is celebrated in Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s play. An astonishing 23 issues were printed on a rudimentary printing press commandeered in Ypres during the First World War, and put together, often under enemy bombardment, by a group of soldiers who had no experience of writing for real newspapers, but turned out to be rather brilliant at it. ‘Journalism can’t be that hard,’ one of the lads says, brightly. ‘I mean, journalists do it.’
With its mix of irreverence and good humour, the paper proved to be a big morale booster for the troops. It was gloriously disrespectful to senior officers who were initially very wary of it. ‘The war is not funny, sir,’ says one stuffed-shirt at headquarters appalled by its general tone. ‘I’ve a feeling that may be the point,’ he is told.
Hislop edits Private Eye and Newman is its long-established contributor and I have a hunch that they see their own publication – not so unlike The Wipers Times, now I think about it – as its living, breathing and kicking great, great, great grandson.
Think about the film Oh! What a Lovely War forming the base of a cocktail with dashes of Blackadder and Ripping Yarns and you get an idea what this show tastes like. It is about fighting and typing and it’s funny and touching and it captures something of the essential spirit of Britishness that now, more than ever, we need to cherish and cling on to at all costs. There are some great digs along the way against the Daily Mail – misjudging the First World War almost as badly as it did the Second, with its early adoration for Hitler – and the sets by Dora Schweitzer superbly evoke the horror and claustrophobia of the trenches.
It is directed with loving care by Caroline Leslie and performed by a superb ensemble cast that includes some suitably old-fashioned faces: James Dutton, Sam Ducane, Kevin Brewer and Dan Mersh all on especially good form. Now I think about it, maybe their faces aren’t really that old-fashioned. Perhaps it’s just acting.