The ruins of the Western Front: a bunch of serving soldiers, an abandoned old printing press and a mischievous, subversive amateur newspaper from below the parapet. It must be fiction? No, it’s The Wipers Times, and it is packing the Devonshire Park Theatre to the rafters this week.
The Great War, as they grandly named it, engendered every possible form of literature and writing. The dreadful beauty of Owen and Sassoon’s poetry. The war correspondents, wavering between jingoism and truthful reporting. The prose fiction, from Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front to Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. The vividly awful theatre of war, from Journey’s End to Warhorse.
But comedy? Aside from Blackadder and the satirical sorties of Oh What a Lovely War, writers have found little to amuse us in those four hideous years of history. Watching Wipers Times feels like a slightly guilty pleasure: do we need permission laugh at this subversive publication? Well, this is a totally true story. Every word was written by serving soldiers, laced with gallows humour and driven by bitter experience.
The poetry is in the pity, said Wilfred Owen. No, the poetry is in the transparent honesty and truthfulness of the Wipers story. It is a merit – and not a fault – of Wipers Times that it makes no grand moral statements. It merely observes, reflects and records. Both writing and playing are understated and very human.
As a piece of theatre, Wipers Times is outstanding, in both director Caroline Leslie’s concept and its execution. The period is authentically captured, action moves briskly and the dialogue is witty. Characters – in both senses of the word – are sharp and likeable.
All around, the slurry of war threatens to engulf them. On Dora Schweitzer’s starkly lit set with shadows in the wings, the soldiers live out daily drudge, squabbles, irreverent evasion of High Command. The noise and savagery of battle, and of death itself, is always within touching distance.
All the acting is assured, credible, very human. You cannot escape the feeling that the ten actors are enjoying this show at least as much as the audience. In a genuine ensemble piece, George Kemp and James Dutton are perfectly paired as Jack Pearson and Fred Roberts, the affable but determined amateur publishers.
From the ranks - not that the newspaper runs on hierarchy – Kevin Brewer’s Henderson and Dan Mersh’s Sergeant Tyler are salt of the earth. Sam Ducane, as the token outraged establishment officer, is the nearest character to caricature, and he carries off even that role with panache and humour. Amar Aggoun, Clio Davies, Chris Levens, Joseph Reed and Emilia Williams complete a line-up without a weak link.
Tuesday night’s show played to an absolutely packed Devonshire Park: not a single empty seat in the stalls and hardly any free upstairs. Afterwards, writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman were joined by George Kemp for an onstage Q&A – and virtually the whole audience stayed put. Pithy, modest and engaging, they exactly mirrored their own writing. “Wipers Times is War Horse without the Horse,” chuckled Hislop. “We are still waiting for the call from Spielberg but we aren’t holding our breath.”
You knew exactly what he meant. The wonderful story of the Wipers Times, remarkable and yet unremarkable, needs no epic treatment. It stands alone as a beautiful tribute, in human scale, to ordinary men who punctured pomposity, gave voice to disenfranchised soldiers, and thumbed their noses at death. By Kevin Anderson.