Satire and vintage wit in the trenches – Ian Hislop’s wartime tale brings a spiriting story to the West End
Words: Damien Gabet Photos: Alastair Muir
A satirical newspaper made in the trenches, for the trenches, during the First World War – using a printing press found in the bombed out Belgian town of Ypres. The rank and file couldn’t pronounce its name properly, and so the publication was called The Wipers Times.
This remarkable true story lay dormant until the early noughties, when Ian Hislop unearthed it while working on a Radio 4 documentary. So taken was the Private Eye editor with the ingenuity of the 24th Sherwood Foresters, he fought (hard apparently) to make it this play.
‘We are going to produce a newspaper,’ says Captain Fred Roberts (James Dutton). ‘What, like the Daily Mail,’ someone replies. ‘No, I was rather hoping for something a little more accurate.’ A line so Hislopian, I could hear the theme tune to Have I Got News for You chiming in my ears as it was delivered.
The puns, some more historically accurate, continue in their droves, imitating the sarcasm of the writing in the journal itself. On the receiving end, the apoplectic brass hat Lieutenant Colonel Howfield (Sam Ducane) spits to comic effect. ‘Have you seen this poppycock? It's downright insubordination! It's downright treasonable!’
While ‘cocking a snoop’ at the high command, the paper also satirised the press through the use of cod musical hall routines. It was with these, sometimes surreal ditties, that the play itself hit an apex, invoking belly laughs and highlighting brilliantly the absurdity of life in the trenches.
The paper also served a more serious purpose, saluting the fallen and making real the tragedy of the war. But it’s with the playing out of this juxtaposition – silly to serious – where the play comes unstuck: in yo-yoing, there is a diluting of both, and a sense that, in the end, neither sentiment is done quite enough justice. It’s a wonderful story nonetheless, and an affirming reminder of how we Brits deal with bad times.
Until 13 May
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