Richard Lutz takes to the trenches for a play about a newspaper written on the Western Front during the First World War.
Every war has its sparkling but dark comic underside, no matter how insane, how vicious, how inhuman the conflict.
There was Oh What Lovely War; there was Catch 22; and, there was Good Morning Vietnam. And on TV there was the formidable Korean war chuckler MASH.
All had their black side, their underlying cynicism, their bloodymindedness. As does Ian Hislop’s true story of The Wiper Times, a magazine written in the muddy hell of the First World War by the troops.
Tellingly, it’s good to get a fresh take on the Western Front madness with the centenary of Armistice Day a month away. It gets us away from the inevitable whirlwind of flag waving, the unending and horrific roll call of fallen heroes and the myths surrounding the 1914-18 war that killed tens of millions.
So, take a look at The Wipers Times at the Birmingham Rep this week. Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, along with collaborator Nick Newman, have written about a group of WW1 Tommies who produced a satiric magazine that fills the trenches with laughter, levelled venom towards the top brass and raised questions about why they were fighting a seemingly infinite battle in the muck and mud.
The story, now forgotten, is true: the soldiers, led by a captain and a lieutenant, find an old printing press in the rubble of the Belgian town of Ypres which the troops pronounce Wipers. Ergo, the name.
In two years they and fellow Tommies wrote, edited and published whether in the rain, under bombardment or watching rats clamber about their underground huts. There were poems, mock advertisements, mock articles, letters to the editor, more poems and jokes galore.
The war is shown as just a bullet away for Capt Roberts and his chief sub editor (there was only him) Lt was Pearson who both led troops into battles of the Somme – twice. Their true story has been forgotten until now.
Hislop and Newman use Edwardian music hall skits to illustrate the cheeky material published by The Wiper Times. And there are inserted scenes of how the senior officers of the regiment felt about being parodied and criticised by an ad hoc magazine written by muddy soldiers. But overall, this is how humour, that evolved into Private Eye itself to some degree, can overcome the bloody war and the chaos and anxiety of the unravelled 20th century.
The play does have its longeurs. It could be cut by fifteen minutes to improve impact. The senior brass comes across a bit two dimensional and James Dutton and George Kemp, as the two originators of the magazine, get a bit sixth form-ish and cutesy with their banter as bombs fall about them. One or two of the music skits fall flat.
But there is solid support from actor Dan Mersh, who takes on varying roles including a sympathetic general and the resolute staff sergeant maintaining a series of ropey presses in the hell that was the western front.
**auntil 13th Oct9ber.