George Kemp – who has been with the great Wipers Times stage adventure right from the very start – is delighted now to be taking it out on the road.
“The play is something that translates well to other parts of the country and, as we saw in Ypres in the summer, to other parts of the world.
“It’s a very human story about endurance and about finding a way to get through something that we all know must have been horrific. And it is good to be doing it now. With the anniversaries, people are much more aware of the Great War. It is much more in people’s conversations, and in lots of ways people can bring their idea of the seriousness of it to the show so that we can then subvert it! We don’t have to lean too heavily on the actual facts of what it was all about.”
The Wipers Times, by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, directed by Caroline Leslie, is at Chichester Festival Theatre from November 21-25, telling the true and extraordinary story of the satirical newspaper created in the mud and mayhem of the Great War.
In a bombed-out building during the First World War in the Belgian town of Ypres (mis-pronounced Wipers by British soldiers), two officers discovered a printing press and created a newspaper for the troops.
Far from being a sombre journal about life in the trenches, they produced a resolutely-cheerful, subversive and very funny newspaper designed to lift the spirits of the men on the front line.
Defying enemy bombardment, gas attacks and the disapproval of many of the top brass, The Wipers Times rolled off the press for two years – a fine tribute to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity.
“I was in the West End production,” George says. “Most of us have been with the story the whole time. We have just had three new cast members.
“At first, I suppose it was all a bit of an unknown quantity. Ian and Nick had done it for the television, but actually making something work on stage is a whole other kettle of fish. We just had three weeks to bring it together.
“We managed to get an idea, a feel for it, and it has remained structurally the same play ever since, though it has gone through slight changes. It was developed with time. It is growing all the time.”
One of the highlights for the cast was a summer trip to Ypres for the centenary commemoration this year of the Battle of Passchendaele: “We were part of the BBC’s commemoration which was a big concert in the market square in Ypres. We had been talking about Ypres for such a long time.
“ It had been with us for nine months, and then we were there, in the town, and it is such a lovely town. But it was flattened by the end of the war. It had to be completely rebuilt, brick by brick. It is an amazing place.
“We did two scenes from the play as part of the commemoration concert. There was Alfie Boe and Helen Mirren and lots of amazing people reading poems and extracts, and we managed to slot in there as well, which was nice. I think we provided a bit of light relief to the proceedings which is actually what the soldiers were doing when they started The Wipers Times.
“It was their way of coping. And it had this fiercely-British thing of only very rarely taking the mickey out of the Germans. It was much more looking at themselves and poking fun at the high command and all that was happening.”