Duke of York's Theatre
Taking a break from its UK tour, this critically acclaimed 2007 Journey's End has set up its dug-out in the Duke of York's for the summer.
Kitchener on the safety curtain, Vaughan Williams for the incoming, but then just the rumble of guns for the scene changes, and Jonathan Fensom's cramped, candlelit set as background to this classic exploration of heroism and the desperate domesticity of life in the trenches.
Grindley's flawless production has many strengths. Not least an exploration of the text that allows full weight to what is not said, could never be expressed. The eyes averted, the awkward pause were just as eloquent as Sherriff's undeniably superb dialogue. Dominic Mafham's avuncular Osborne, for instance, recalling life at home, finds a raw nostalgic nerve caught as he mentions his wife. The cheery Trotter [Christian Patterson] lets his merry mask slip just for a moment.
And the lighting, impressively replicating the candles' flickering glow, made the low-ceilinged makeshift living room, with camp beds and a dining table jostling for space, look like an Old Master, especially at key moments – like the first meeting between raw recruit Raleigh [Graham Butler] and his schoolboy hero [James Norton] – where a strong stage picture was held just long enough to have a little more emotional impact.
There are no star names here, just an excellent ensemble, who brilliantly suggest the camaraderie and the conflicts of enforced proximity, with the horrors of war just yards away up the dug-out steps. Food and drink [rustled up by Tony Turner's drily stoical Private Mason – a distant ancestor of the beloved Baldrick] are a key theme, giving comfort and a structure to life on the front line, as well as making a desperately needed distraction from the tragic inevitability of death in action.
All the performances were superb. As the boy straight from school, “keen” to join his hero Stanhope, Butler was achingly naïve and vulnerable; his return from a suicidal raid on the enemy trenches was shockingly powerful; he realises at last that war is not rugger or cricket, and Denis is no longer the captain of games he worshipped only three years ago back at school.
Norton's subtly characterized Stanhope, drinking too much to liven up the dull routine, and as we realise in his heart-to-heart with Hibbert [Simon Harrison] to ward off the demons of doubt and despair that threaten to impair his effectiveness as a leader of men, veered unnervingly from affability to rage as the whisky kicked in. His rages were frighteningly intense, but his moments of introspection were tellingly done, too, such as his explaining to Osborne how he could see through the wall of their dug-out to the mud and the worms.
We know the play, we know the history of 1918. So the end is inevitable. But Grindley has one more stroke of genius in reserve. After hurried arrangements for lunch on their return, the men with whom we have shared a couple of hours of banter and soul-baring, go over the top, and we're out with Stanhope into the deafening hell of the guns, to find a peace of a kind in the company of those men unnumbered whose name liveth for evermore ...this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews