R C Sherriff
Lee Menzies and Act Productions Ltd
Wyvern Theatre, Swindon, and touring
The First World War claimed over ten million military lives and it was supposed to be the war that ends all wars. Yet today young lives are still being lost in Afghanistan and Wootton Bassett has become a focus for the repatriation of their bodies back to Britain.
Swindon's Wyvern Theatre has embraced this situation with a 'call to arms' for the local British Legion in a project to identify the local young men who fought in the war to accompany their latest production of R C Sherriff's Journey's End and they turned out in considerable numbers to attend the play. General Manager Gareth Johnson had really made this a true community event and should be applauded for such effort.
Sherriff's emotive play was based on his own experiences of life in the trenches and was first performed in 1928 when the nation was still reeling with the loss of so many of its young men.
It is set in the British trenches at St Quentin in 1918, strikingly designed by Jonathan Fensom who perfectly evoked the rat infested officers trench filled with the detritus of war as the occupants tried to bring some form of normality to the horrors they faced. Jason Taylor's gloomy lighting created an atmosphere that drew you in to the inhabitants candle lit world.
James Norton gives a powerful performance as Captain Stanhope, the officer in charge. He's an ex-public school boy, former captain of the first eleven and is admired by his men. He has been besieged in this war for the past three-year and his tired and disillusioned with the fighting. He copes by drinking copious amounts of whisky to drown out the horrors.
His fellow officers are serving a six-day duty on the front line and are an eclectic mix of characters.
Former teacher Lieutenant Osborne was convincingly and fondly played by Dominic Mafham who pitched the role perfectly as the benevolent heroic and kind hearted 'uncle'
Desperate to win his ticket back to Blighty by feigning illness is Lt. Hibbert (Simon Harris) much to the disgust of Stanhope.
By contrast Trotter (Christian Patterson) is the stoical officer eating his way through the war and counting off the days on a chart before they are 'stood down.'
Upsetting the equilibrium is the arrival of the young keen and naive Raleigh, sensitively played by Graham Butler who attended public school with Stanhope and hero-worships him but brutally discovers that the war has changed Stanhope forever.
Nigel Hastings is the dithering Colonel anxious to gain victory in the next push forward whilst Tony Turner is the 'salt of the earth' private Mason who cooks for the officers and brings a welcome touch of humour to the play.
An early raiding party in order to capture a German soldier (Andy Daniel) results in the death of 'uncle' and catastrophically transforms Raleigh as he finally realises the vileness of the war.
Time is almost at a standstill as everyone waits for the attack and the tension created is truly palpable. The heart-wrenching ending as the bombs and cacophony of warfare resounds around the theatre (designed by Gregory Clarke) is overwhelmingly moving.
The curtain call is performed in role against a backdrop of the names of the dead on a memorial wall that brought home the enormity of conflict.
Directed with great conviction and sincere intensity by David Grindley this was an excellent thought provoking production.
Simon Sladen reviewed this production at Richmond Theatre
Reviewer: Robin Strapp