Brilliant but arduous journey

Do or die: The stark choice for Second Lieutenant Hibbert (Simon Harrison) from his commanding officer Captain Stanhope (Nick Hendrix - left)

Journey's End

Wolverhampton Grand

*****

THE powerful emotions and raw nerves exposed in every scene of R C Sherriff's Great War masterpiece leave the audience battered and drained by the time they reach the shocking, moving end.

This is not an evening's light entertainment at the theatre – it even keeps the annoying sweet eaters quiet - it is a hard, emotional experience which grips from the opening lines on the dark, grim stage.

It's not fun or even what you would recognise as entertainment but it is certainly unmissable; a play and a production that shows what theatre is capable of creating.

Much of the power of Journey's End comes from the fact that it has no agenda, no political or moral message, nothing to argue or debate, no views at all.

Sherriff didn't set out to write an anti-war drama, or a play full of stiff upper lip patriotism or, worse, flag waving jingoism – he simply wrote about the life he had known in his 10 months in the trenches before he was shipped home wounded. The characters are drawn from people he met and served with in 1916-17, including a spell on Vimy Ridge.

Yes, the language and some of the attitudes and values seem a little quaint and dated now - we don't say “topping” much any more – but this was 1918 and somehow, rather than appearing old fashioned, the dated delivery gives a very modern air of authenticity – we feel we are really in the trenches of St Quentin in the final months of a bloody war.

The drama all unfolds in the officers dugout in a small section of the front in the lead up to the German Spring offensive, Operation Michael on March 21. It is a section and a battle largely forgotten or unknown these days, none of the fame, horror or glory of The Somme, Ypres or Arras about it - just another offensive on a forgotten bit of front which makes it even more poignant.

The set is permanently dim, lit by a few oil  lamps and a candle, and immediately it feels damp and dirty. The dugout roof is hardly higher then the men so the stage is reduced to the height of a decent coal seam. A play in a cave.

It opens with Captain Stanhope's company arriving to relieve an eager to get away Captain Hardy (Tim Chipping) whose conscientiousness  is is notable only by its absence.

Raleigh (Graham Butler - left) is finding the trenches of World War One are not quite the same as life at school with Stanhope (Nick Hendrix) while Osborne - Uncle (Simon Dutton) looks on

Stanhope's second in command is Lieutenant Osborne, played with an air of resigned calm by Simon Dutton.  He is ancient by front line standards, known as uncle to the other officers.

He was a school teacher in another life who also played rugby for Harlequins and, although he doesn't talk about it, turned out for England as a centre.

Joining the company as a replacement  is Second Lieutenant Raleigh played with naïve charm by Bridgnorth actor Graham Butler. He was at Barford school with Stanhope and has wangled a posting to his company. Fresh from school he has arrived at the front line  full of gung-ho, how topping enthusiasm and hero worship– he is to last just two days.

Stanhope has been at the front for three years – an eternity in Great War terms. He is loved by his men but his nerves are shot, his sanity is on a hair trigger and he can only get through the waking hours in a whiskey induced haze. It is a challenging role met superbly in full by Nick Hendrix.

Second Lieutenant Trotter, Mike Hayley, is a sort of Norman Fletcher character, making the best of a bad situation, nothing phases him and he laughs in the face of adversity - admittedly though much of the laughter is hollow. A full compliment of officers is five and making up the numbers is Second Lieutenant Hibbert played sympathetically by Simon Harrison. His nerves, and ability to cope, were shredded long ago. He functions only through a mix of threats and cajoling by Stanhope.

They are served by cook Private Mason, Tony Turner, ever fussing about and in turn explaining and apologising about what passes for food.

For much of the play little happens and conversation comes in bursts, often trivial such as wondering how worms know which way is up. Behind it all though is the growing fear of an impending German attack and you can almost taste the rising tension which is made worse when the Brigadier, safely away from the front, decides Stanhope's company has to go and capture a German for information.

Two officers and ten men - just pop over no man's land and pick up a Boche would you, there's a good chap.

Nigel Hasting's Colonel seems more concerned about the fish for dinner than the fate of the men he is sending on what is a likely suicide mission.

Graham Butler's Raleigh changes from schoolboy to battle hardened war hero (posthumous) all in the space of two days

For Raleigh the raid changes his topping posting to the grim reality of war. One day at the front and he has gone from eager schoolboy to man. Raleigh's great adventure has vanished, along with more than half the raiding party, in the empty wasteland between the front lines.

We are conditioned these days to expect ever more expensive special effects and realism with the likes of Saving Private Ryan a typical example but the best special effects of all are in the mind, in the imagination.

This superb 2004  production directed by David Grindley originally to mark the 75th anniverary of the play, shows the eloquence of silence when we are left to fill in the gaps ourselves, it shows the power of an empty stage when our mind is left to create scenes for us.

All the characters are flawed, damaged in some way by the war and the life they are being forced to lead and are all superbly portrayed. Raleigh growing up overnight, Hibbert battling fear, Trotter joking his way through terror and Osborne resigned to what will be, all held together by Stanhope who holds himself together with a bottle. We slowly befriend and understand the characters and start to care what happens to them. There are no villains, no heroes, goodies or baddies just ordinary blokes and by the end we feel for each of them – and what an end. If you ever wondered about theatre's ability to surprise and shock here is your answer.

As Stanhope leaves the dugout to join his men on a day in which 38,000 British troops died in the battle, the curtain slowly comes down as guns rumble in the distance and the shellshocked audience start to applaud only to be drowned out by a rising, deafening tide of the sounds of battle with heavy artillery, shells, explosions, machine guns – then silence.

The Last Post sounds and the curtain rises to reveal the cast of 13 standing at ease in battle dress and still the curtain rises, and rises  and rises revealing a memorial wall of war dead filling the entire stage up into the flies – all to silence with an audience unsure if it would be disrespectful to applaud.

Appreciation finally triumphs over emotion though and the cast remove helmets, the nearest we get to a bow, to acknowledge rapturous applause.

For a play with no message, 83 years on it still delivers loud and clear leaving many a sniffle and damp cheek in its wake. It is simply stunning. Theatre at its finest. See it if you can. To 08-10-11

Roger Clarke

 

Opening a second front . . .

*****

IT may be tempting to think you have had enough of war stories with the daily diet of conflict around the globe on television and in newspapers, but R.C.Sherriff's brilliant play based on fact is a must see experience.

From the moment the curtain rises to the scream of shells, explosions and the rattle of machine gun fire, the audience are gripped by the action, set in the officers' section of British trenches near the front line during the First World War.

There is a riveting performance from Nick Hendrix, playing Captain Stanhope, the brave young commanding officer of a company preparing for a daring raid across No Man's Land to capture an enemy soldier and gather intelligence at St Quentin in 1918, in the days leading up to the last great German offensive.

Hendrix perfectly portrays a soldier who has spent too long at the front and, though loved by his men, needs bottles of whiskey to help him face the grim horror of war. And Bridgnorth-born Graham Butler is excellent as 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh, a naive newcomer to the conflict

Sherriff's story, based on his own experience, includes humour, too, but the final scene and sound effects delivering a crescendo of ear-splitting explosions is awesome. When the curtain rises at the end the cast stand silently in from of a giant board listing names of the fallen, as a lone bugler sounds the Last Post. As they leave the stage, the applause is deafening.

Directed by David Grindley, Journey's End runs to 08.10.11

Paul Marston

FEATURE

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