“Do you suffer from optimism?” asked the first edition of the Wipers Times, the sardonic, satirical, and often subversive World War One trench periodical upon which Ian Hislop and Nick Newman based their play.
Following a BBC film and later, acclaimed stage adaptation, the play has transferred to the West End for a limited run at the Arts Theatre.
The true-story of a newspaper produced under the bombardment of “Fritz”, by soldiers of the 24th Division of the Sherwood Foresters, who, lacking in editorial guile, remain in high spirits, despite the lugubrious backdrop.
A tale of camaraderie, the trench humour makes the gallows feel tame, offering comedic clarity in the fog of war. As any seasoned Private Eye reader will note, the Wipers Times has Hislop written all over it; terribly droll, accurate yet terse, with an undue respect for the trade of the newsman.
The pastiche of 1917 Ypres (or “Wipers”, as the British troops call it) is fairly authentic – the vernacular all “whizzbangs” and “poppycock”, costumes baggy and fittingly period. While humorous, The Wipers Times strikes an often serious tone: when a compatriot dies in the trenches, one is taken from beatific song to poetic lows in a final heartbeat.
Clio Davies plays myriad roles, and handles interchangeability well, from the traitorous Madame Fifi to the fox-draped Lady Somersby. The stage rapport between James Dutton (Captain Roberts) and George Kemp (Lieutenant Pearson), feels genuine, like a friendship forged in the thick mud of unending battle.
One minor quibble is the music – it often dragged, and felt a touch showy. Nearly every verse sung I wanted to end immediately.
There’s something awfully familiar to the modern notion of “fake news” throughout; how the narrative of war is false, dictated by those who have never experienced its horrors. There's something very Daily Beast about the fictitious Daily News.
But the conflict most poignant is not the war itself; the play is interlaced with the narrative of class warfare – between officers in ivory towers and the grim front line. “The battlefield is not for humour,” insists the pompous Lieutenant Colonel Howfield.
But the theatre, certainly is.