R C Sherriff
Lee Menzies in association with Jeremy Meadow, Suzanna Rosenthal and the Shaftesbury Theatre
New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and touring
This account of the trials, tribulations and horrors suffered by the men (ordinary civilians, not professional soldiers) serving in the Great War is told with sympathy, compassion, and total accuracy by a man who knew what he was talking about having been there himself.
Sherriff joined up at the tender age of eighteen, determined to do his bit for King and Country and, ten years later but with first hand knowledge, based his play on memories and with reference to letters he wrote home from the front.
He tells it as it was, and life in a dugout in France (no more that one hundred yards from the enemy line) is played out in front of us missing nothing of the hardships and the pressures yet, despite all, the indomitable spirit and courage of the men still shines through, and the British sense of humour is not lost.
Britains youth, many hardly out of school, found themselves in a world of cold, unrelenting rain turning the ground into a quagmire of mud, while food was practically inedible, rats flourished and bullets and bombs were a constant threat, with their friends often dying beside them. No wonder some cracked under the strain.
Into this world comes young and eager 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh, anxious to please, happy to be in the same regiment as his schoolboy hero and friend Stanhope, but Stanhope is no longer the boy he remembers. Wrestling with conscience, duty, responsibility for his men who look up to him, yet full of self-loathing, he has sought solace in the whisky bottle and is given to episodes of fierce explosive temper interspersed with melancholy and self-doubt.
Producers and actors were wary of risking their reputation with an unknown writer and with a play which was not conducive to a jolly night at the theatre and the play was almost lost, but perseverance paid off and eventually produced with an unknown Laurence Olivier cast as Stanhope. The play has since become a classic and has hardly been out of production since.
David Grindleys well-researched version (with the aid of Gregory Clarkes terrifying, sound effects and Jason Taylors emotive lighting) hammers home the message of the futility of war, and the tragic waste of young lives, which ultimately resolves nothing - except maybe the global population explosion.
The play is an emotional roller-coaster as we go from Stanhope wrestling with his conscience and his duty (a brilliantly judged strong performance from Nick Hendricks) to 2nd Lieutenant Trotter (Mike Hayley) talking happily about his garden with the odd joke thrown in. Raleighs disillusionment and tragedy are excellently portrayed by Graham Butler who also manages the most realistic and heart-rending death Ive ever seen. Simon Duttons ex- schoolmaster Lieutenant Osborne (known as Uncle) is the calm and reasoning presence among the trepidation, accepting what has to be, and there is strong support from all, particularly Simon Harrisons Hibbert, terrified and accused of cowardice, and from jovial cook Private Mason providing light-hearted jokes about the food.
The opening shock of whistling bullets and thunderous bombs which shook the entire theatre had the immediate effect of silencing hordes of chattering teenagers who, along with the rest of the audience, remained quiet and absorbed throughout the whole play. Even the curtain call is a coup de théâtre with the helmeted men standing motionless as if cast in bronze while the Last Post sends its mournful message - lest we forget.
The last word is attributed to General Douglas Haig: The nation must be taught to bear losses. Really?
Tears maybe shed, you may leave the theatre feeling shattered, but Sherriffs masterpiece has to be seen in a production which I feel will never be bettered.
Touring to Wolverhampton, Cheltenham, Cardiff, Coventry, Sheffield, Salford and Nottingham.
Reviewer: Sheila Connor