Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and Touring
What can a play written 75 years ago about events which happened eleven years prior to that have to say to audiences today? On the evidence of the touring production of Journey's End, which opened in Newcastle tonight, a great deal. Set in the days leading up to Operation Michael (Der Kaiserschlacht) on the Somme in March 1918, it could almost be described as a slice of life in the trenches. The language and attitudes, especially the class distinctions, are very definitely foreign to modern audiences (drawing some giggles from a school group near me: more on that later), but the issue of courage in the face of fear is one which has many modern resonances.
I first read this play when I was fifteen or thereabouts (in the fifties) and have read and seen it may times since, but it still has the power to move deeply. Partly it is the play itself, but I have to say that this touring version, based on the current West End production, hits every button.
If bravery is lack of fear, then no one in this play is brave. Yes, young Raleigh is enthusiastic and keen to do his bit and emulate his hero, Stanhope, but he soon learns the grim reality of the war and he, too, like Stanhope, Osborne, Trotter and Hibbert, has to learn to deal with his fear. The strength of Sherriff's writing is that he is able to show us how each of these very different characters come to (very different) terms with that fear, engaging our sympathy for all of them, even the obnoxious Hibbert, and giving us a clear, fully-rounded picture of each.
The cast of David Grindley's production are, without exception, totally believable. Tom Wisdom's Stanhope has a wired, almost febrile energy, partially fuelled by whisky, as he balances on a knife edge between fear and the drive to do the job, arising from his sense of duty, his determination to meet the high standards he sets himself and not give in.
Philip Franks has, deservedly, garnered much praise for his performance as "Uncle" Osborne who, along the supposedly unimaginative Trotter (Roger Walker), projects a surface aura of calm, but this is just the way these older men deal with the same fear that the younger experience. Both are quite superb. In fact, there isn't a weak link in the production. A convincing set, atmospheric lighting, an soundscape that, at first subtly but with increasing insistence, keeps us aware of the war raging outside, and wonderful use of pauses and silence all combine to create a very powerful production.
Even the curtain call - how that could have destroyed the atmosphere - makes a statement. As the Last Post plays, the curtain rises very slowly to reveal the whole cast posed in front of a white wall covered with the names of the dead. The applause swells and they remove their steel helmets. A deeply moving end to a deeply moving play.
But one, I am afraid, which was very nearly spoiled for a considerable part of the audience in the dress circle by the appalling behaviour by a group of sixth formers, who talked, got up and went to the toilet in what was at one point almost a procession, fiddled with their mobile phones and even played music, and not a member of staff in sight. The evening ended with an explosion of anger from audience members (many of them press), including sixth formers from other schools who, to give them full credit, were as disgusted by their peers' behaviour as the rest of us. If I were certain of which school they were from, I would have no hestitation about naming and shaming. I have never in all of my years of theatre-going seen members of an audience react so strongly and with such anger. The students' behaviour was disgraceful, but what was more disgraceful was the fact that their teachers made no attempt to stop them - they are a disgrace to their profession.
What a shame when the Theatre Royal's autumn season was starting with such a superb piece of theatre!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan