David Grindley’s production of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End is a riveting and impressive adaptation that was first performed in 1928 when a young Sir Laurence Olivier was first treading the boards.
Journey’s End is a slow burner of a play that rises to a powerful and terrifying crescendo aided by evocative and detailed production design and subtle and expressive uses of external sound that gives the impression of the impending battle that lays on the horizon.
The play itself depicts four days in the trenches in the run up to the Battle of Saint-Quentin in Aisne at the back end of the First World War.
The action focuses on the experiences of a British army infantry company in the officer’s dugout and is in many ways a microcosm of the Great War itself and how the personal events of these men unfolded and the devastating effects trench warfare had on its combatants.
The play begins by depicting what could only be described as the mundane existence of trench warfare and the simmering pressure of when the action would reach the soldiers. It was a case of when not if.
The initial focus of the play concentrates on Captain Stanhope and his old school friend 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh. Both played with great conviction and vigor by James Norton and Graham Butler respectively.
Captain Stanhope is a man embedded in the very grains of the war, never resting for a moment with the notion of combating the nervous thrill and danger that the war provoked. Trotter on the other hand is man eager to face the enemy and has yet to be diluted by the decadent scent of war.
These two characters act as a barometer for the play and the Great War itself by showcasing what war can do to the purity of man. Stanhope is furious Trotter has been allocated to his company for he is embarrassed for his old friend to see what he has become. Whilst Trotter worships his old friend no matter how much he has changed from the daring young man he was in his youth. Stanhope attempts to retain his sanity by turning to the bottle whilst Raleigh is soon exposed to the true colors of trench warfare.
In amongst the characters of Stanhope and Trotter are a plethora of other characters that give a snap shot of the differing types of people involved in the war. There’s Lieutenant Osbourne or “Uncle” as he is known to the men portrayed with a light but prominent touch by Dominic Mafham. Osbourne is a wise and more older soldier who acts as the plays moral core and brings a depth of warmth and calm to the bunker. Brief interludes of humour is brought to the proceedings in the form of Lance Corporal Broughton played with great presence and skill by Mike Hayley.
Today’s generation can never fully comprehend the notion of war especially the Great War which history tells us was a devastating and horrific conflict but R.C. Sherriff (who’s own experiences as a Captain are the basis for the play) attempts to give you an insight into what it was like in the mud and depravity of the depths of war.
This is a unique play as it has lasted the test of time and has risen again in this kaleidoscopic cultural world of the 21st century. In a culture of Transformers 3 the theatre has somewhat been shoved to the side in its wake. The written word has been neglected in favour of the fast moving image.
Journey’s End is a timely reminder of mental and physically horrors not only men but women experienced during the Great War. The play’s stately portrait of this particular era is not only an all encompassing snap shot of history but a wonderfully crafted piece of theatre that touches on a entire spectrum of emotions that can only really be experienced in the intoxicating and verbose world of the theatre.
by Ben Newell