Feigned illnesses, Alice In Wonderland, whisky: just some of the tactics used to mask the fear of the officers holed up in their dugout during the last days of the Great War, in David Grindley’s claustrophopic production of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End at the King’s.
Raw youngster Raleigh (Graham Butler) arrives at the front under the command of childhood friend Captain Stanhope (James Norton). Raleigh is filled with excited expectation of seeing action alongside his old comrade, but is met by a changed man: although loved and respected by his fellows, Stanhope is a battle-hardened and apparently dispassionate leader with a reputation for drinking too heavily.
Sherriff’s piece was written a decade after the First World War, and was based partly on his own experiences. Although some of the dialogue and behaviour may seem almost comical to a modern audience exposed to the likes of Blackadder Goes Forth, Journey’s End was lauded at the time for being a realistic portrayal of life on the front.
Irrespective of any anachronisms in language or its depiction of class, Journey’s End is at its core a study of human behaviour in the face of threat. Whether it is Lieutenant Osborne’s (Dominic Mafham) stoical resolve; or 2nd Lieutenant Trotter’s (Christian Patterson) constant cheeriness: each man deals with the horror in their own way, convincingly portrayed by a strong cast.
Mafham in particular stands out in his performance as the kindly ‘uncle’ figure Osborne, whose own fears only manifest when he is facing his fate alone. Norton too convinces as the comandeering Stanhope; also playing his rare moments of compassion with a touching and believable tenderness.
Jonathan Fensom’s design is outstanding, complemented by Jason Taylor’s evocative lighting. The entire play is set within the cramped confines of the dugout, well-realised by Fensom and lit atmospherically by Taylor: a combination of flickering candles and light filtering down the steps leading to the trenches. Gregory Clarke completes the sensory experience with some theatre-shaking sound design.
At times, the pacing of Journey’s End betrays its age; and despite being at the core of the piece, Raleigh and Stanhope’s relationship is a little underplayed – had Sherriff concentrated more on their pre-War relationship, the power and poignancy of the whole would have had an even stronger emotional impact. As it stands however, it serves as a fitting and realistic tribute to the men who served; emphasised by the curtain call, in which the cast stand in a living tableau of remembrance.
Journey’s End’s production values are high and its cast excellent. The horror and futility of war have been explored many times since, but it is to the production’s credit that it does so in such a way that it makes us imagine how we would choose to mask our own fears in the face of similar terror.
Journey’s End runs until 19 March. Further information is available on the King’s website.