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Review: The Wipers Times @ Lyceum Theatre

Penned by Ian Hislop and longstanding writing partner Nick Newman, The Wipers Times is a touching and often hilarious true story of how a resilient sense of humour can play an important role in even the most tragic of circumstances. In early 1916 a group of 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters are patrolling the war-torn ruins of Ypres when they happen upon an old printing press. Sergeant Harris, previously a printer on Fleet Street, declares the machine still in working order and this gives Captain Roberts the wonderful idea of producing a satirical newspaper to entertain the battle-weary troops. But what on earth to poke fun at in such circumstances? It would have to be the only thing they knew at the time – war.

Despite the lack of editorial experience amongst the team headed by Roberts and his sub-editor Lieutenant Pearson, the quirky ads, parodies and poetry quickly become a huge hit with the troops and a thorn in the sides of some disapproving members of top brass. As the play moves on, it becomes apparent just how much the publication means to the soldiers; they write gags while under bombardment, pen poems while guarding cold, rat-infested trenches and laugh together at spoofs parodying the dangers of daily life on the battlefield. The paper’s content is regularly brought to life for the audience via cabaret-style enactments and receive the biggest laughs of the evening. Away from the battles and banter delivered rapidly by a quick-firing script, we are also shown the other sides to their war: bittersweet letter exchanges with sweethearts, downtime spent at Madame Fifi’s (a local brothel) and the looming threat posed by a temperance campaign determined to see alcohol removed from the frontlines. Laughs are aplenty, but it certainly doesn’t gloss over the hardships of war and some scenes make for very particularly poignant viewing. More than anything, The Wipers Times is a tale of men defiantly holding onto their humour and spirit in the face of unimaginable peril – and this play tells it superbly. 4/5

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