It is probably no coincidence that The Wipers Times UK tour begins here at Nottingham Theatre Royal. The play written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman concerns a group of soldiers from a local regiment – the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters – in active service during the First World War. The theatrical story is based on true events and its real life main protagonists Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson. Together with their comrade Sergeant Tyler – a printer in civvy street- they discover an abandoned printing press in the bombed out ruins of Ypres. The soldiers pronounce the French town as Wipers and thus is born the satirical twenty page newspaper the Wipers Times. It was only edited and printed twenty three times but considering that this was done and distributed often under heavy bombardment this historically fascinating journal was no mean feat.
Caroline Leslie directs this current and recently updated touring production with aplomb, making the very most of Dora Schweitzer’s atmospheric trench set, superb sound effects by Steve Mayo and clever lighting by James Smith. There is plenty of humour to be had from the witty script and the Daily Mail gets a couple of critical swipes along the way.
Music hall has a big influence on the style of The Wipers Times presentation and the real time action is comically augmented with satirical skits and bursts of song from the small hard working, ten strong, cast. This Nottingham Theatre Royal first night audience love it as the show moves subtly from outright comedy, smart puns, digs at Army authority and moments of poignancy and reflection at the reality of millions slaughtered at the third battle of Ypres, the Somme and the battle of Menin road.
The cast includes two actresses Emilia Williams as Kate Roberts and Clio Davies triples up as Nurse/Madame Fifi and the haughty Lady Somersby. Both are compellingly excellent.
Sam Ducane (Lieutenant Colonel Howfield) is superb as the stiff upper lipped humourless Lieutenant Colonel always assuming the common soldiers are up to no good and shirking their duties to fight and die for their country. All the cast are totally believable in their roles including Amar Aggoun as Barnes, Kevin Brewer as Henderson, Chris Levens as Dodd, Joseph Reed as Smith/ Bobbing Bobby and the Chaplain. Dan Mersh is also exceptional in his three roles as Deputy Editor/ General Mitford and Sergeant Tyler. The songs that accompany many a swift scene change are beautifully reminiscent of British soldiers songs of the period.
The two main roles are warmly actualised by James Dutton as Captain Roberts and George Kemp as Lieutenant Pearson. Their on stage war time friendship is totally convincing and one would like to think deeply reflective of the real life heroes and their mutual valuable weapon against the horrors of the war – darkly subversive and salient humour.
This Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre production will make you laugh, will make you think and will make you consider the millions of lives lost in the 1914-18 war.
This first night/press night is also blessed with a visit from The Wipers Times play creators themselves, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, and modern day soldiers from the Sherwood Foresters regiment.
Reviewer: Phil Lowe
The Wipers Times runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal 28 August – 1 September 2018