Review: The Wipers Times @ Opera House, Manchester

The story of The Wipers Times – a satirical newspaper published by the British troops in the First World War trenches of Ypres – is a fascinating one.

Brought to life on stage by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and long-time collaborator Nick Newman it’s an absolute triumph.

The pair – whose credits include Spitting Image, Harry Enfield and Chums and My Dad’s The Prime Minister – have been working on the show for more than a decade and in a way seem like the perfect hands to craft the tale.

Both Hislop’s Private Eye and Newman’s satirical cartoons can trace their roots – spiritually if not directly – back to The Wipers Times and you can tell the project has been a labour of love.

Hislop was in attendance on the first night at Manchester Opera House last night and his beaming smile as the cast took their bow displayed a real sense of pride in a job well done.

For those who don’t know the barely-believable-but-most-certainly-true tale of The Wipers Times here’s a quick history lesson.

EDITOR: James Dutton as Captain Roberts with Dan Mersh as Sergeant Tyler

Deep in the trenches of Ypres – Wipers to the Tommies – a regiment, the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters, find a printing press and set about producing their own newspaper to lift the spirits of the troops.

Unable to include details of the war effort, the editorial team of editor Captain Fred Roberts, sub-editor Jack Pearson and a Sergeant whose job on civvy-street was as a printer resort to laughs, digs at the top brass – tin hats – and fake adverts.

The play itself is less a traditional narrative piece and more a collection of stories, poems, songs and cartoons brought to life in a series of Music Hall routines interspersed with snippets of what life would have been like in the trenches under bombardment from the Germans. 

The staging is superb – the same props and furniture is used throughout for different setting – and the comic wartime ditties between scene changes, carried out by the ‘troops’ themselves are real earworms.

A production is only as good as its cast and while the cast of The Wipers Times might not feature any names that jump off the page, the whole ensemble was on point throughout.

James Dutton, as Captain Roberts, managed to mix both public school stiff upper lip and humour in the face of some pretty dark times with a vulnerability which provided a real insight into life behind enemy lines.

George Kemp’s Lieutenant Pearson is more thoughtful and less brash but no less enterprising and his relationship with Roberts is an interesting one.

LAUGHS: The cast strike a great balance between humour and poignancy

Indeed, if there is a minor gripe I could levy at Messrs Hislop and Newman it’s that we don’t get to explore much below the service of any of the regiment’s main characters.

The pick of the fine ensemble though is Sam Ducane as Lieutenant Colonel Howfield, the weasely high ranker who would love nothing more than to stop the ‘insubordination’ of The Wipers Times.

It’s a real art to be that hapless but Ducane pulls it off with aplomb.

The Wipers Times is probably not going to tell you much factually that you don’t already know about the First World War but with the centenary of its end on the horizon next year it’s a timely chance to look at what we know through different eyes.

The Wipers Times is at Manchester Opera House until Saturday. Tickets are available here

In 2018 the production is transferring to the West End’s Arts Theatre for a limited season in October. For more information click here.

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