You might expect a play by Ian Hislop and fellow Private Eye/Spitting Image Nick Newman to be wilfully funny celebration of satire, which indeed it is, but you might not expect it to be quite as moving as it is.
Originally shot as a television film, the stage version of The Wipers Times recounts the story of Captain F J Roberts and the men under his command who, happening upon a printing press in a bombed out building in Ypres, decided to produce a satirical trench magazine. The subversive magazine poked fun at the vagaries of trench life, the Germans, the press, the propaganda, and (most controversially) the high command.
For starters, The Wipers Times pays great homage to the publication it celebrates by being unabashedly funny. There are the groaningly awful puns that the editors were so fond of, pastiche, comic songs, and a cast easily capable of delivering the zingers with aplomb. More than that though, the play serves as something of a defence for humour and satire, even and especially in the darkest of times.
The overhanging threat of censorious commanders who can brook no mockery and denounce the lightest of gags as an unpatriotic treasonable offence is tempered by an even-handed approach by the writers. As much as a WWI comedy will channel Blackadder Goes Forth, Hislop and Newman do pay credit to senior officers who appreciated and defended the magazine, recognising its integral effect on morale.
As with all Watermill productions, the cast is made up of fresh talent and they are more than up to the task of capturing the disposition of the soldiery, whether that be weathered angst or hard-fought levity. Replete with some clever staging that easily accommodates the move between grotty trench, command HQ and a fantastical music hall, The Wipers Times is a funny and touching tribute to the power of humour. ★★★★★ Fenton Coulthurst 14th November 2017