R C Sheriff
Grand Opera House, York
Seventy-six years after its premiere, Journey's End has lost none of its ability to move and shock. Not only has Sheriff's classic tale of "the war to end all wars" stood the test of time amazingly well, it has if anything aged better than many works inspired by the conflict's 1939-1945 sequel. David Grindley's original West End production was showered with praise last year and the current touring company does full justice to Sheriff's masterpiece.
The story is well known: it's March 1918 on the Western Front and the German army is poised to make a massive advance. Idealistic 18-year-old Lt. Raleigh (Richard Glaves) has pulled strings to get himself assigned to the battalion commanded by his school chum and idol Captain Stanhope (Tom Wisdom, in a role created by the young Laurence Olivier). Other occupants of the officers' dugout include Lt. Hibbert (Stephen Hudson), faking illness in a desperate attempt to escape from the front line; the jovial and unimaginative Lt. Trotter (Roger Walker); middle-aged former schoolmaster Captain "Uncle" Osborne (John Elmes); and put-upon cook Private Mason (Stephen Casey), doing his best with unrecognisable meat and onion-flavoured tea. It's a tribute to Sheriff's skill that his little microcosm of British society comes across a believable group of characters, not as the wearisome bunch of stereotypes all too familiar from American war films.
As the last three days before the German attack tick away the men discuss the pre-war pleasures of West End shows, walking in the New Forest, gardening - Trotter proudly displays a photo of his eight foot tall hollyhock - and the thrills of driving at the hair-raising speed of sixty miles per hour. Tensions between the men come to a head when Stanhope, a veteran of three years at the front who relies on whisky to get through each day, refuses to allow Hibbert to leave the dugout and helps him to confront his inner demons. A poorly planned raid on the nearest enemy trench results in the capture of one terrified German soldier and the deaths of five men, including the beloved "Uncle" Osborne. When the attack begins in earnest and the curtain goes down on the abandoned dugout, accompanied by the almost unbearably loud and prolonged noise of howitzer fire, we really do feel that we've lived with and known these men.
As with all ensemble casts I hesitate to pick anyone out for special praise, but I feel compelled to make two exceptions to the rule. John Elmes is superb as Osborne, the quiet voice of normality in a world of industrialized slaughter. He gives an object lesson in the art of portraying simple goodness (a notoriously difficult feat to pull off). Richard Glaves is quite simply heart-rending as the hero-worshipping teenager Raleigh - his scenes with Elmes as the two prepare for the ill-fated raid are among the most memorable in the play.
In short, Journey's End is an unmissable experience. You are unlikely to see a finer touring production this year.
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson