STAGE REVIEW: The Wipers Times @ Northern Stage (02.10.17) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Images by Alastair Muir

The story of The Wipers Times really is remarkable. It’s a story of escaping daily horrors, of fighting hatred with humour, and as much about fighting for the survival of the soul as it is about the more general fight for survival during World War One, a war the likes of which the world had never seen.

For those who don’t know the story, The Wipers Times tells the true, almost forgotten, story of Captain Roberts, who along with the men under his command, stumble upon a printing press in bombed out Ypres (mispronounced as Wipers by British soldiers). Despite a lack of any journalistic experience, Roberts and his second, Lieutenant Pearson, decide to start a paper following the old adage of writing about what you know; namely the bureaucratic incompetence of the general staff, the courage-imbuing powers of whiskey, and an alarming outbreak of optimism amongst the men that the war is actually going well.

Image: Kevin Brewer and Peter Losasso, The Wipers Times 

Black humour runs deep through the trenches of The Wipers Times, almost but never quite masking the mud, blood and misery that Roberts and his company have to deal with constantly. The script may bounce with bonhomie, joviality, and clever word play (you would expect nothing less from the writing team of Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, two names synonymous with Private Eye), but the actors never fail to show the reality lurking underneath: War is hell, friends die to advance the line a few yards, and when all is said and done you’re given back your jacket and ushered back into the real world to fend for yourself.

The cast is uniformly fantastic, deftly managing pathos with exaggerated humour (the articles and adverts written for The Wipers Times play out as comedic vignettes behind the main set) and music hall traditions of the time. The zaniness is imaginative rather than jarring, and so spirited it encourages you to share a smirk with the characters dreaming it all up before another bomb falls nearby to bring them and the audience back to the reality of the situation. That’s the juxtaposition at the heart of The Wipers Times, escapism and brutal reality, and so it’s hard to imagine anybody seeing The Wipers Times and not being struck with fits of giggles one minutes and goose pimples the next.

The Wipers Times is not just a remarkable story, it’s also a remarkable play and a testament to the human spirit. Wryly funny, thought provoking, and thoroughly uplifting in a way that only a tale of holding onto your very being throughout the darkest hours can be, The Wipers Times is a story that deserves to be remembered, and a play that deserves to be seen.

The Wipers Times runs at Northern Stage until Saturday 7th October.

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