Reviewed by Nigel Chester
Nottingham’s Historic Theatre Royal is always a pleasure to visit with its historic 1865 facade with handsome stone pillars making any visit to the surprisingly spacious theatre within, a real treat. Located in the centre of Nottingham the theatre is easily accessible by tram and with ample parking nearby one never has to worry about how to get there. The theatre is also surrounded by a wide array of bars and restaurants so that, regardless of tastes, a pre-theatre meal is always on the menu. An early arrival may also result in the location of an on-street parking space for the princely sum of just £2:00.
The Wipers Times, as co-writer Ian Hislop tells us, is a stage production one hundred years in the making, when half way through the first world war, a few of the soldiers from the 24th division of the Sherwood Foresters discovered a printing press in the ruins of Ypres.
Being unfamiliar with the pronunciation, the soldiers from the 24th division just went with Wipers and, as these things so often happen, the stars were in alignment and Sgt Tyler, a civvy street printer with a printing press, came together with Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson to create a newspaper printed from the front line.
How, I wondered, could a play be entertainment, when the subject matter was a newspaper publication set in the mists of one of the most horrific wars in history; but, entertain it did, the jokes, puns and spoofs that were played out by the fabulous cast, were straight from the pages of the paper. The self-deprecating humour of the British at a time of extreme adversity was funny then and is funny now.
Writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman took fabulous material and, staying true to the concept of the Wipers Times, moulded it into two brilliant hours. The staging was superb, the barbed wire of the trenches, suddenly lit up, the sharp barbs were fairy lights, becoming the stage lighting for what, quite literally, had become the theatre of war. This juxtaposition was a brilliant metaphor for the Wipers Times itself.
Today, we believe we have an understanding of what the First World War was like, this morning however, I realise that it was long periods of boredom, punctuated by sheer terror: and time spent thinking of limericks and rhymes, parody and spoofs gave the men sat in mud the opportunity to laugh. Contrast this with the obvious disdain for the top brass and their determination to put a stop to the “subversion and treasonable behaviour”.
The play moved us through time and place. We saw the horror of the mustard gas and its terrible effects. We visited the bar of Madame Fifi, later to be proved a traitor, and were also transported back home to blighty and the comfortable surroundings of “The Ritz”. We felt the cold when it snowed and cowered at the thoughts of “Big Bertha”.
I wouldn’t describe The Wipers Times as a musical, but music played a large part and under the musical directorship of Paul Herbert, we were privileged to listen to both songs from the trenches and brand new material for the play.
Just like the soldiers of the Sherwood Foresters, many of the cast are young and at the start of their lives, but for such a young cast, they delivered. There were some stand out characters, Dan Mersh took three roles as Sergeant Tyler, the Deputy Editor and, as General Mitford, as Mitford he filled the stage with compassion and understanding whilst being ridiculously middle classed but also railing at the efforts of “Bobbing Bobby” to curtail the efforts of the “Wipers times”.
The Wipers Times has left me feeling many things, but I am humbled at the tenacity of character of these real men with James Dutton, as Captain Roberts and George Kemp, as Lieutenant Pearson, both decorated officers, both witty and subversive, whose own families did not know of their full and unique role in the war, until they were approached by the writing duo. So many of the soldiers who came home, never spoke of their roles, however, this play tells the story of so many ordinary soldiers, the generic Tommy Atkins and all the whizz-bangs.
This year I shall wear my poppy with a deeper understanding of the fallen of the First World War and say “thanks for the laughs lads”.
Tickets cost from £17 to £35.50 (booking fees may apply).
The Wipers Times is at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham from 28 August to 1 September 2018, for more information or to book tickets visit www.trch.co.uk or call the box office on 0115 989 5555.
Theatre Royal & Royal Concert Hall, Theatre Square, Nottingham, NG1 5ND