‘Journey’s End’ @ Theatre Royal

Journey’s End follows the lives of five officers on the front line and their interactions with each other whilst waiting for the ‘final push’ of the First World War. It shows that the power of war can cause physical and psychological destruction as we see how, in only four short days, the reality of war manages to obliterate the ‘topping’ idealism of fresh-faced new recruit 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh and alter irrevocably the relationship between him and his boyhood hero, Denis who has been transformed into the war weary Captain Stanhope.

As soon as the curtain rises on David Grindley’s production of Journey’s End by R.C.Sherriff and the audience gets its first glimpse of the stage, any idealistic notions of war are ripped apart by the startling reality. The idealistic is suggested by the infamous propaganda image of the dominant, pointing figure of Lord Kitchener which lifts to reveal a surprisingly intimate set creating the atmosphere of a dingy and claustrophobic dug-out. One candle illuminates the centre stage for the duration of the play; its perpetual glow on stage represented the soldiers’ vigilance and the glimmers of hope which resurfaced time and again upon their gritty, determined faces. In this sombre setting, a soldier hums tunefully as he attempts to dry his socks over the flame: an act made more humorous because of this haunting backdrop.

The performance of Graham Butler is impressive as awkward 18 year old 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh who has enlisted straight from school and consequently, is forced into premature manhood. Just as convincing is Nick Hendrix’s portrayal of Captain Stanhope, whose insecurities overwhelm his ability to control them. His sudden but frequent outbursts rocket through the dugout with an unparalleled emotional ferocity; his fear is obvious. Drowning in whisky, he looks to Lieutenant Osborne for emotional security and stability.

Indeed, Simon Dutton’s portrayal of softly-spoken Lieutenant Osborne is superb. He is a figure as fatherly as his nickname ‘Uncle’ suggests. His tender compassion for others overrides his fear which never reveals itself until the last; his hand shaking violently, unseen by the others, just before a raid on enemy lines. It is fitting that Osborne is in fact a schoolmaster and that Raleigh and Stanhope have been pupils together. Osborne teaches them both valuable lessons in coping with the war; his memories of home, of Rugger and the New Forest are colourful and animated, pervading the dugout’s smoky air and providing relief to those desperately seeking it.

R.C Sherriff’s 1928 play is, to an extent, a piece of autobiographical fiction. Sherriff himself saw active service in France for ten months; from September 1916 until July 1917, being sent back to Blighty after being seriously wounded by fragments of a shell. With his own eyes he experienced some of the most notoriously bloody parts of the war; fighting in stints at Vimy Ridge and the infamous Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele. It is unsurprising then that his characters and dialogue accordingly formed themselves ‘without invitation’; the audience is exposed to a startlingly accurate presentation of life in the trenches by a playwright whose expert knowledge of them is all too clear. Sherriff explores fear and how men struggle to cope with its crippling existence; the numbing effects of alcohol, insomnia and shell-shock worsen the tensions which at times, reach intense climaxes. However, Sherriff too explores the importance of the imagination and how even the ability to romanticise the war can help to desensitise the men: letters act as blinkers; photos serve as reminders and memories are escapism.

However, the grim reality of the trenches also has a lighter side; Sherriff’s play is riddled with comic scenes and sketches initiated by 2nd Lieutenant Trotter (played by Christian Patterson). Patterson’s Trotter is certainly larger than life; the repartee between him and the droll and uninspiring cook, Private Mason (played by Tony Turner) could well be scenes from the BBC’s Blackadder Goes Forth. The comedic moments the two produce significantly lighten the mood and distract from the otherwise overwhelming sense the audience get of imminent tragedy.

As well as the outstanding acting, Gregory Clarke’s sound design is without doubt, one of the most emotive, effectual aspects of the play. Bombs fall throughout but it is only when the curtain falls that the turmoil truly begins; the ‘Big Push’ has come. It swallows up the officers and isolates the audience members forcing them to brace themselves against the cacophony of bombs, shells, grenades, shouts and whistles growing disconcertingly louder. Then, an explosion, and all fades into an abrupt silence. The din is shocking, the terror is real and the silence just as provoking; adrenalin races and the horrors of war, those which so paralysed Stanhope and the others, become as close to being fully understandable as is possible. The very sounds are perhaps as moving as the performance itself.

Ending with the sound of a single trumpet playing ‘The Last Post’ and scenery which leaves you applauding not only the actors but the images behind them- epitaphs of soldiers who were killed in the Great War- it is a simple tribute in what is a truly exceptional play. In this month of remembrance it serves as a poignant reminder that servicemen are still as vulnerable today as ever and that in conflict, human emotions unlike the concepts or mechanisms of war, will never alter.

Katie Angus

(R.C. Sherriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ is on at Theatre Royal until Saturday 19th November 2011)
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