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Wipers Times: Theatre Review
"The war isn't funny."
"No, I rather think that's the point..."
Last night I saw the opening night of The Wipers Times at the Palace Theatre and it is one of the most enjoyable, poignant and funny plays I've seen in a long time. I remember learning about it at school - a satirical newspaper created by soldiers in the trenches of Ypres in the First World War ('Wipers' was the British soldiers' mis-pronunciation the Belgian town). Shout out to anyone who was taught by Mr. Nicholson at Westcliff Girls - I always remember him telling us about the Wipers Times.
The play, surprisingly, considering it was about a hideous, unbearable kind of warfare, was brutally funny. The soldiers in the trenches who created the paper sensed a need for something light-hearted in the face of the horror they were dealing with. The script was packed with zingers, delivered on-point by a cast of witty actors, who dealt with both the comedy and poignancy deftly.
That was the magic of this play: laugh out loud for the most part, but very emotive in others. I had tears in my eyes at a couple of moments. There was a great deal of clever writing where the characters referenced things innocently, but as the audience, we're armed with history books and knowledge of what really happened so we could laugh knowingly. One soldier was telling another of the next place they would be stationed. "Lovely river there," he said. "Ah yes," said the other, peering at a map. "The Somme."
It felt very pertinent and current that the play - and indeed the Wipers Times itself - addressed the notion of Fake News, a hundred years before that term was even coined. The script bashed the Daily Mail (hooray!) and other papers back in Blighty for reporting that everything was going well at the frontline, without any real knowledge of what was happening, and how awful it really was. There were many jokes about the "It'll be over by Christmas" tropes, along with mickey-taking of the "One last push" directive given to the poor soldiers endlessly being sent 'over the top' to their deaths.
The play addressed all this excellently; using absurd music hall vignettes to describe the dire conditions - genius! The scenes were short and sharp - the actors trained in quickly moving set pieces to create different scenes that felt effortless. There was clever improvisation from one actor when a blackboard on wheels refused to stay put. From the set, music and the staggering silhouette scenes of the soldiers going 'over the top', to the (spoiler alert) numb faces when the armistice was declared- I felt truly moved by this brilliant play.
The Wipers Times, written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, is running until Saturday 14 October at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-Sea. You can follow the play's progress around the UK on Twitter at @wiperstimesplay or by following the hashtag #TheWipersTimes
Update July 6 2018 - The production is transferring to the West End's Arts Theatre for a limited season this October. For more details, please click the link below