Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Journey's End - Richmond Theatre

Writer: R.C. Sherriff
Director: David Grindley
Reviewer: James Higgins
[rating: 5]

The first thing I saw when I took my seat for Journey's End was the huge iconic Lord Kitchener poster telling me 'Your Country Needs You' , which filled the whole of the stage. As this lifted up I sensed the audience was in for a treat, the set (Jonathan Fensom) was magnificent. I haven't seen such meticulous detail for a while, it really did take you straight back to the damp inhospitable setting of the Trenches. 

The top half of the stage was completely pitch black and the bottom half an officers' dugout. An exit to the left led to a bunk room, an exit to the right to the kitchens and stores whilst straight down the middle ran muddy wooden steps up to the lines. We could see two bunks, a table with candles and several makeshift chairs in the form of old crates.

The characters that inhabit this underground world are stationed behind British lines near St Quentin, France in March 1918 and we join them six days before the last great German offensive of the First World War. This event saw the British suffer 38 000 casualties in just one dark day, as a result of over one million shells being fired at the lines in just 5 hours. The play begins with Captain Hardy (Tim Chipping) preparing to go on leave as we await the officers that will replace his men for the next six days. Captain Stanhope (James Norton) has been at the front for 3 years, is mentally on the edge and drinks too much whisky; he is joined by Lieutenant Osbourne (Dominic Mafham) and 2nd Lieutenants' Raleigh (Graham Butler), Trotter (Christian Patterson), and Hibbert (Simon Harrison). Tony Turner (Private Mason) is the omnipresent cook that we see hour after hour.

We watch them as they eat, smoke and drink, all to excess as there is nothing else to do in between being on duty. There is tension, sadness and constant fear but stories and laughter too. There are huge arguments but also touching shoulders to cry on. The lighting design (Jason Taylor) is excellent and really helps to set the scene, as day breaks the sun streams down the steps from the trenches but at night the candles and oil lamps glow in the dingy dugout as the fog of tobacco fills the stage.

Journey's End seems even more evocative and genuine than other Great War plays and stories maybe because RC Sherriff saw the horror of the trenches first hand with the East Surrey 9th. He then returned to a very different world where he loved to row through Kingston On Thames and Journey's End was born just 10 short years after it was set.

There has been some criticism of the fact that this play is based on Officers but it is far from elitist, we do not see the toffs depicted in *Blackadder Goes Forth *and it is only Raleigh, whose uncle is a General that thinks everything is 'topping' when he first arrives and seems to think it will be all chaps together just like the 'rugger' team. Hibbert is well-off, but Trotter has come up from private with an London accent to match. Osbourne is a school teacher and Stanthorpe a vicars' son.

The performance from the eleven strong ensemble is exceptionally good with brilliant performances from many. The sound design (Gregory Clarke) really set the tone of the play and rather than drown us with constant gun fire, gave us deafening bombardment to spectacular effect when necessary but mostly just eerie silence and pops of distant shells. Inevitably the end of the journey is a sad one, but story of the journey is highly recommended and after the audience fell silent momentarily then loud applause rang out.

Runs until 12th March.
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