“The Wipers Times”

The most recent Upton Theatre Group outing found us at The Oxford Playhouse on 4th September enjoying a Trademark Touring and Watermill Theatre production of The Wipers Times.   This is based on a true story set during WW1 and was written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman.

The Oxford Playhouse has seen a trendy makeover since my last visit some years ago and the auditorium is now a masterful palette of grey walls and multi-coloured comfortable chairs, a real bonus following a recent visit to the Adelphi Theatre in London in which you needed to be no more than 5’ tall to sit with any degree of comfort!

Fifteen years ago Ian Hislop came across The Wipers Times while working on a documentary for Radio 4.  The story originated in the spring of 1916 when a group of Sherwood Foresters led by Captain Fred Roberts discovered a printing press in the bombed out ruins of Ypres, otherwise known to the Tommies as ‘Wipers’.  Hence the satirical weekly publication was born. The dynamic stage setting seamlessly changed rapidly with some well rehearsed choreography by the cast to depict a variety of scenes from the trenches to French cafes.   Although familiar with the story of WW1 I found myself surprised at the months our troops had spent in one place and could not imagine how desolate it would have felt living in a sea of mud and barbed wire with the unrelenting noise of warfare and rats devouring your food supplies.  Captain Roberts and his Lieutenant Jack Pearson provided a very popular distraction in the form of a newspaper which celebrated the camaraderie of those whose existence relied on humour as a coping mechanism and as an antithesis to the ‘hate hymn’ which was sung incessantly by the Germans just a few yards away.  A few of the cast members held dual roles and their energy and timing was engaging to watch from the outset, many of the satirical articles within the newspapers were directed at the perceived “safe” positions senior officers held during the war and their apparent total lack of empathy and compassion towards the soldiers on the front line.   These senior officers appeared ignorant of the squalid, desperate conditions the troops were experiencing and together with the Temperance movement also objected strongly to the alcohol consumption on the front line which further illustrated their lack of understanding.  Even after the war finished, those who hadn’t fought on the front line questioned the accuracy of the Wipers Times and almost dismissed it as a bit of trivia.

The play was certainly very humorous in places, although perhaps not as much as the marketing material led me to believe.   I felt, however, huge gratitude that so many sons, brothers and husbands (many of whom did not return) found a shared camaraderie through The Wipers Times during a period in our history which we must never forget.  It ran from 1916 until just after the end of the war and published 23 issues.

 

Jane Strange