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The Wipers Times review at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury – ‘an entertaining tribute’

The cast of The Wipers Times at The Watermill Theatre. Photo: Philip Tull
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Based on the true story of the newspaper published on the Western Front for British soldiers during the First World War, The Wipers Times was originally a successful television drama, broadcast in 2013 – now writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have adapted it for the stage.

Apart from the extremely challenging conditions under which it was produced, what made the paper so extraordinary was its satirical even subversive character, making fun of military strategy and high command.

Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson salvage a printing press in a bombed-out building in the Belgian town of Ypres (or “Wipers” as British soldiers mispronounced it), then found the paper as editor and subeditor respectively. Despite enemy attacks and top-brass hostility, remarkably they managed to bring out 23 issues from 1916 to 1918.

Caroline Leslie’s production entertainingly enacts some of the paper’s spoof adverts, comic songs and poems, and music hall sketches, which contrast starkly with scenes of trench warfare. Absurdist humour allowed the Tommy a little release from the surrounding misery, and there are hints of Monty Python and Blackadder Goes Forth – not to mention Hislop’s anti-establishment Private Eye.

Dora Schweitzer’s effective design merges the barbed-wire parapet of a trench with a shell-torn structure, while the intimidating bang and flash of artillery bombardments are evoked in Steve Mayo’s sound and James Smith’s lighting. James Dutton plays the irrepressibly ebullient Roberts and George Kemp the drily ironic Pearson, a unique comedy-writing partnership here given a belated celebration after passing many decades unrecognised for their contribution to troop morale.

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Verdict
Entertaining tribute to the maverick team behind the First World War trench newspaper
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