Theatre Review: Journey’s End (at the Greenwich Theatre)

I was lucky enough to see this production from Sell a Door theatre company on 15 February 2013. Unfortunately it isn’t on any more but I still want to share my thoughts on the production with you:

  JE header for review final

To give a bit of background to anyone who didn’t get to study this at school, Journey’s End is a play by R. C. Sherriff born out of his experiences as a Captain of the 9th East Surrey Regiment from 1915 to 1918 (he served at Vimy and Loos and was seriously wounded at Passchendaele in 1917). All the action takes place in the officers dugout at the front line somewhere in the range of trenches in front of St Quentin.

The play covers the course of four days that start with a new officer, Raleigh – eighteen years of age and as fresh, bright and optimistic as only one who has never set foot in the trenches before can be – arrives to join Company C, captained by Stanhope (whom Raleigh knew at school) at they move back to the front line at a time when an attack by the Germans is considered immanent. It ends with the attack.

What happens in those four days covers a whole gamut of experiences and emotions that only trench warfare can produced and highlights some of the most contentious issues of the war. The script is powerful enough when you sit and read it but when it is staged by a company that know what they are doing it is explosive. 

Sell a Door really know what they are doing; there was nothing about the staging, costumes, lighting, casting or directing I could find fault with. From the moment the lights came up on Hardy drying his sock over the candle flame to the final minute where no one was left on stage and all you could hear was the rattle of machine guns, the whine of minnies and the crack bang of exploding shells I was mesmerised. I felt for the men, individually and as a group; being soothed by Osbourne, enthused by Raleigh, almost broken by Hibbert’s terrified despair. Stanhope, by turns, made me wince, cringe, cower and flame with pride in the British sense of duty that only in recent decades seems to have deserted the majority of the population. 

As the ensemble brought Sherriff’s script to vivid life I realised how much I’d missed through only having read the play up until that point. There were phrases I’d thought were sarcastic that now I could see were anything but and found exchanges that had seemed flat on the page truly electrifying when occurring not two feet from me. I also found myself, at a few points, thinking that the writers of Blackadder Goes Forth had clearly read the play as there was more similarity between Mason and Baldrick than I’d previously realised. 

I felt drained by the time the last pyrotechnic had exploded and a rattle of earth hit the stage floor, but drained in a good way because I’d spent the last two and a bit hours transported somewhere I’ve spent quite a lot of the past year trying to imagine. I don’t think I was the only one at the end who was clapping and crying at the same time. 

The only thing that disappointed me was the fact that it was only on for one week, I’d seen the penultimate evening performance and due to other commitments I couldn’t go back to see it again the following day. 

I should also say hello and thank you to Adam Fletcher, who played Hibbert, and whom I met on the train home and was lovely enough to put up with me rambling on to him about World War I between babbling effusively about his and the rest of the cast’s stellar performance. He also mentioned that they’d received mixed reviews. I expressed the opinion, and still hold that now, that anyone who gave the play less than five stars needs to check they actually attended. It was a triumph and I’m only sorry that I can’t encourage you to go and see it!

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