The Wipers Times/Malvern Theatres

I’VE never understood why so much of the popular music during the First World War was so relentlessly jolly.

Every tune of the period seems to be such a hymn to happiness. Pack up your troubles, smile boys smile… not a sombre note in sight.

So just how did one get through those four years of mud, murder and misery? Answer – gallows humour. And loads of it.

Amid the ruins of the Belgian town of Ypres, two British officers and their sergeant discover a printing press. The latter had been an inky in Civvy Street, the officers fancy wielding pens as well as swords… and so a newspaper is born.

Well, of sorts. Because there’s no news as such… the Wipers Times soon wins a reputation as being an organ of endlessly entertaining satire, irony, and the occasional bitter barbs that can only be created by desperate men resigned to having no control over life and death.

Soon, the grim laughter of soldiers starts to reverberate along the trenches, competing with - and who knows, maybe even occasionally drowning out - the constant racket of whining whiz-bangs and moaning minenwerfers.

But it’s not long before the top brass get to hear of it. And predictably, they don’t like it one little bit, and try to shut the operation down. Thankfully, they fail.

As you would expect from an editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop’s life-affirming collaboration with Nick Newman leaves you with a feeling of awe and admiration.

Hislop has correctly identified kindred spirits who arguably anticipated the birth of his own irreverent publication. He quite obviously has a huge respect for men who sowed the seeds of such creativity in the poisoned tilth of the Ypres Salient more than a century ago.

James Dutton as reluctant reprobate Captain Roberts and George Kemp in the role of the suave and unflappable Lieutenant Pearson never waver in their resolve to overcome both the Germans and their armchair foes back at the chateau. Meanwhile, a steadying hand is provided by Dan Mersh as the stoical Sergeant Tyler.

As for the soundtrack, composer Nick Green and musical director Paul Herbert gleefully convey the absurd merriment and exaggerated optimism peculiar to the period, reinforcing the notion of a world gone mad.

The Wipers Times runs until Saturday (September 22) and is a fitting opener to this year’s events to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.

John Phillpott