It is a shame that whoever decided to emblazon the posters for Journey’s End with the Mail on Sunday’s verdict that the production is an “eloquent celebration of heroism” does not appear to have seen the play they are marketing. Far from the tub-thumping patriotism the Mail’s phrase implies, R C Sherriff’s piece is a bitterly poignant reflection of the abject futility of war and the tattered shreds of humanity that somehow manage to survive it. If anything, it draws attention to the emptiness of the concept of heroism – the unhappiness of the land that is in need of heroes.
Drawing on Sherriff’s own experience of the bloodbaths at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, his play depicts three days in the lives of five British officers awaiting a German offensive. One is wise and compassionate, one a drunken bully. One is desperately trying to be sent home sick, one a fresh-faced public school boy. One seems predominately concerned with his stomach. All have been forced into a desperate situation, vividly and disturbingly brought to life by this talented acting company. Who needs heroes when one can have human beings?
Simon Dutton provides the evening’s most sensitive performance as the kindly Lieutenant Osborne, or ‘Uncle’ as he is affectionately known by the other men, but the whole company put their all into this energetic production. One might occasionally wish for more moments of lowered tone in a rather shouty second half, but this intensity certainly captures the fraught extremity of the situation. As Stanhope cries, “You think there's no limit to what a man can bear?”
The production’s biggest drawback is that it is difficult to feel the full claustrophobia of the men’s squalid dug-out when it is placed on a large proscenium stage. Designer Jonathon Fensom does his best to create the right atmosphere with a realistic box-set, which effectively closes down the playing space, and he is aided by Gregory Clarke’s alarmingly potent sound design, but one still yearns for a more intimate studio setting.
All, however, is forgiven at the play’s chokingly powerful ending, which would be a shame to give away, but which alone does a lot to justify the production’s proscenium staging. This is a solid revival of a timeless play, with occasional moments of brilliance.