It’s that time of year again. The clocks have gone backwards. The nights are drawing in and most people are wearing red poppies as Armistice Day approaches. So it is apt that Manchester Opera House is currently showing the Wipers Times, which tells the true story of a satirical newspaper created in the trenches of the First World War.
In the Belgian town of Ypres, which was mispronounced Wipers by British soldiers, a printing press is discovered and so the Wipers Times is born, a newspaper for the troops to read and deflect the horrors of war. Humour has often been used by those involved in such horrors as a means of a coping mechanism – and the Wipers Times very much taps into this trait.
Written by Ian Hislop and fellow Private Eye colleague Nick Newman it deftly treats what was the harrowing life of a typical soldier in the battlefields of France with a wry sense of wit by focussing on the exploits of Captain Roberts and his men. It seems apt that the parody of war from Messrs Roberts and his trusty sidekick Lieutenant Pearson should chime with Hislop and Newman. Their style and observational comedy has an uncanny synchronisation.
Leading from the front is James Dutton as Captain Roberts and he forms a charming camaraderie with George Kemp’s Lieutenant Pearson. Their affectatious double act is really subtlety quite engaging, especially played against the backdrop of the First World War. They ying off each others yang, and you really do feel like you’re rooting for them to succeed.
The same can be said of the cast in general. They seem to gel affectionately so, often coming to the fore in some of the more understated musical numbers. The set design by Dora Schweitzer is also in keeping with what you’d expect a First World War trench to look like, and is used quite effectively with James Smith’s lighting design to bring a verve to proceedings.
Hislop and Newman are able to craft not just the story of how the The Wipers Times came about, but also quite cleverly weave in a few snippets of the gallows humour from the Wipers Times itself within the production. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up when this culminates in the entire company reciting the parody to Rudyard Kipling’s If.
As the passages of time move to their usual rhythm, there will come a time when we have no one left surviving to tell us about the horrificness of the wars of the twentieth century, let alone how people continued to live their lives, to find hope in the bleakest of times, to shine a light in what was otherwise unremitting gloom. Productions such The Wipers Times are a testimony to those brave souls.
Verdict: A poignant and often amusing look at how those involved in the Great War used humour and satire to try to forget the horrors of war. It will have you laughing one minute, crying the next.