Review: The Wipers Times at Birmingham Rep

By David Fox

The Wipers Times at Birmingham Rep

Based on an unbelievable true story!

The Wipers Times, at Birmingham Rep until Saturday 13th October, was written by Ian Hislop (stalwart of Have I Got News For You) and Nick Newman originally as a BBC drama in 2014 and has now been adapted for the stage. It tells the true and extraordinary story of the satirical newspaper created in the mud and mayhem of the Somme and comes to The REP direct from a record-breaking West End season.

In a bombed out building during the First World War in the Belgian town of Ypres (mis-pronounced Wipers by British soldiers), two officers discover a printing press and create a newspaper for the troops. Far from being a sombre journal about life in the trenches, they produced a resolutely cheerful, subversive and very funny newspaper designed to lift the spirits of the men on the front line.

Wipers Times
Wipers Times

Defying enemy bombardment, gas attacks and the disapproval of many of the top Brass, The Wipers Times rolled off the press for two years and was an extraordinary tribute to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity.

I was introduced to The Wipers Times when first visiting the town of Ypres a few years ago. The site of the Menin Gate and its moving nightly remembrance ceremony Ypres is a wonderful own to visit if you are interested in learning more about the First World War. I picked a copy of The Wipers Times book in the town and have been interested in its story ever since, it was brilliant to see it brought to life on stage at the REP.

Wipers Times
Wipers Times

I really enjoyed this production – it was interesting, irreverent, and satirical. Most importantly it was very funny! James Dutton was Captain Roberts and George Kemp Lieutenant Pearson – the founders and editors of The Wipers Times newspaper who set out to mock the war, the conditions, and the top brass of the army. Along with an excellent ensemble cast they brought this show to life and celebrated true British humour under fire.

Jokes from the original newspapers were brought to life as sketches, songs and musical acts and the show at times felt like a wonderful review. There were also some very funny observations about the media, and manipulation of the truth, straight from the pages of The Wipers Times. Seems nothing has changed! The set comprised corrugated sheets, to evoke the conditions of the trenches effectively and I really liked how the stage projected real footage from the war in the background.

It seems impossible to believe that a group of soldiers would publish a newspaper under the conditions they were living and fighting in, and it was interesting to see how the newspaper became more important to them than the actual war. I felt almost sorry for them when the war ended and they had to stop printing the paper! However, their legacy is the fascinating, (and very funny) Wipers Times and they deserve to be remembered for that and for their story to be heard.

2018 sees 100 years since the end of World War One. The upcoming centenary commemorations are a timely reminder of the futility of war, but also a celebration of the British spirit, and a celebration of another British tradition: our ability to mock and satirise those in positions of power. It is perfect timing to see this play and maybe learn more about this untold aspect of World War One.

If you are interested in this previously untold aspect of history, or are simply looking for an entertaining night at the theatre, then I would thoroughly recommend this play!

The Wipers Times is playing at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 13th October. Tickets can be booked online at birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/the-wipers-times.html


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