“It feels like we’re just generally waiting around for something to happen”
Set towards the end of the First World War in the trenches at St Quentin, Journey’s End is a compelling account of life in an officer’s dugout written by RC Sherriff who drew on his own experience there to create this piece of powerfully timeless drama. Never moving from Jonathan Fensom’s tightly designed set, it focuses particularly on Captain Stanhope who is leading this group of officers in the days before the Germans launched one of their fiercest offensives as they reflect back on what has happened, battle through the grim realities of day-to-day life on the front line and contemplate the conflict that lies ahead.
David Grindley’s production was first seen in the West End in 2004 and is a masterclass in showing that less can be so much more when deployed with the devastating effectiveness that we see here. One of the play’s recurring themes is the corrosive effect of the endless waiting on the minds of soldiers and officers alike, so much so that one almost longs for something to happen, despite knowing that the order to the front line is an almost certain death sentence. So when that finally happens, the way that the audience is left to make their own conclusions about what is going on in the trenches above from the noise of artillery and bombs whilst watching an empty stage, especially when it is the fate of two of the main characters that lies in the balance, it is an almost unbearable moment. Gregory Clarke’s sound design is perfectly throughout, ever-present but rising to uncomfortable levels as the characters we’re coming to know repeatedly go up to face unimaginable peril above ground and the finale, with the final onslaught represented by a deafening wall of sound which literally shakes the theatre, is a moment of stirring horror that really does leave one stunned.
Likewise with so much of the acting: there’s a beautiful restraint to many of the performances which makes them all the more powerful. Tony Turner’s matter-of-fact Private Mason keeping the officers supplied with the meagrest of provisions and a dry wit, yet not hesitating for a second when it’s his turn to go over the top and Graham Butler’s naively keen Raleigh, a new arrival slowly coming to realise that war is no game, was acutely observed. Christian Patterson provides a little (literally) broader comedic touch as an officer highly unsuited to life in the field and James Norton is outstanding as Stanhope, the officer shattered after being thrust into an intolerable situation 3 years ago and barely able to cope with the responsibility of so many lives in his hands. Norton’s performance never lets us forget the upper-class position of this man but makes him all-too-human as a complex character ricocheting between heroic bravura and drunken dismissiveness, all too aware of the heavy duties placed on his shoulders.
But it is Dominic Mafham’s avuncular Osborne whose presence is a steadying influence on the men around him and indeed on the audience. His unruffled manner gives us hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and the chat with Raleigh before their mission is just beautiful as they reminisce about English country walks, a much-needed moment of calm making his silent breakdown as he struggled to light a pipe just moments before, one of the single most heart-breaking moments I’ve seen in quite some time.
The curtain call is beautifully done, honouring those who have gone before, and really does leave one conflicted as to what the appropriate response is. As the soldiers stand motionless, in silence, in front of the names of the fallen, applause feels intrusive, standing would be inappropriate, it really is extraordinarily moving and hard to show the appreciation the company richly deserves. I suppose it is the curse of seeing midweek matinees, and I was glad to see so many school parties being taken to the show, but their whooping jarred badly with the rest of the audience, most of whom were wiping tears from their eyes at this.
Journey’s End has a tour plotted out for most of the year (someone more eagle-eyed than I spotted in the 4 month gap in the schedule and wonders if they might not be angling for a return to the West End) and I cannot recommend trying to see it highly enough, even if you have to travel a bit more than you are used to. As a tribute to those fallen, no matter the conflict, and a passionate cry railing against the futility of war, I can’t imagine a more affecting war drama than this, told with a powerfully stark simplicity.