Writer: R C Sherriff
Director: David Thacker
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Tensions mount in the trenches during World War 1. Rumours of a massive German offensive abound and the rigours of command have made the dedicated Stanhope (James Dutton) increasingly dependent upon alcohol. Steadfast Osborne (David Birrell) worries that the arrival of Raleigh (Tristan Brooke) who hero-worships Stanhope will make bad matters worse. Then the British command insists that a raid be made across enemy lines.
R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End is undeniably a classic play but that does not make it easy to stage. The play is static with a single set, a lot of talking, little action and seriously out-dated dialogue. There is a tendency to jump from inertia to melodrama without touching actual drama. Modern day audiences are more accustomed to perceiving the upper class officers it portrays as objects of amusement or derision rather than as tragic characters.
Yet the play remains compelling with the attention to detail that can come only from a writer who took part in the conflict. The vital importance of clean trenches, ample supplies of whiskey and pepper and the contempt for perceived malingerers provide an authenticity that is now lacking in the ripe dialogue.
There is a contradictory element to the play as Sherriff condemns the conflict but celebrates the camaraderie of the soldiers. Director David Thacker excels at emphasising the latter. His surprisingly light touch in the first act draws laughs in the right places while ensuring that the audience does not titter at the cries of ‘Topping!’. Thacker avoids an oppressive atmosphere of encroaching doom preferring a mood of displacement. The soldiers are shown trying to forget the mess they are in by indulging in an orgy of food and drink after a bloody mission or concentrating on trivialities such as whether tinned apricots are preferable to pineapples.
Thacker is determined to make the audience part of the dysfunctional family. James Cotterill’s dugout set sprawls around the audience and the cast are onstage as the theatre fills.
Some of the rôles still reflect the time the play was written and it is hard for Tristan Brooke to make Raleigh anything other than symbolic of the loss of innocence. James Dutton takes an abrasive approach to Stanhope. Rather than internalise the man’s demons Dutton makes them all too apparent with a lacerating performance drawing out Stanhope’s self-disgust and despair.
The production is quietly stolen by David Birrell’s understated interpretation of the levelheaded Osborne. A rôle that could have been the clichéd upright chap becomes instead a demonstration of the level of bravery needed to behave decently in terrifying circumstances. Birrell’s dignified preparation as he sets out on a probable suicide mission is a highpoint of the production.
The respectful approach taken by The Octagon gives a very good production of a challenging play minimising potential weaknesses and drawing out the considerable strengthens to demonstrate why Journey’s End remains a classic.
Runs until 4th October | Photo Ian Tilton