David Grindley’s outstanding revival of RC Sherriff’s classic 1929 First World War play Journey's End has been a staple of the touring repertoire since its first West End season at the Comedy eleven years ago.
And, after this limited season, it returns to the road in Glasgow and Aberdeen in September, playing theatres from Milton Keynes to Cheltenham, Salford and Nottingham. You feel that, with our troops still active, and vulnerable, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the play still brings home the humanity, and horrors, of service abroad.
We are in the officers’ dugout near St Quentin in 1918, just before the last great German offensive. Everything is bleak about the sandbagged design of Jonathan Fensom, the murky lighting of Jason Taylor, the vile food (lumpy porridge and dubious cutlets) and the humour of the officers. But you can cut the tension with a knife.
The pivotal characters are the schoolmaster and rugby-playing Lieutenant Osborne (Dominic Mafham), the heavy-drinking Captain Stanhope (James Norton), and their situations are illuminated in the contrasting welcomes they extend to the young fresh-faced soldier Raleigh (promising newcomer Graham Butler), who idolised Stanhope as a schoolboy hero.
And as the play progresses, you realise how tragically insignificant these soldiers’ campaign is in the greater scheme of things. There’s Hibbert’s (Simon Harrison) gathering neuralgia and nervousness, Stanhope’s doomed and irascible edginess, and Osborne’s memories of sunshine summers and climbing hollyhocks.
It’s all so unutterably sad that, with one or two twists, it could become that satirical demand in Beyond the Fringe for one last futile gesture. And Grindley’s curtain call, the soldiers silhouetted in stillness like sculptures by Charles Sergeant Jagger, in front of a stage-filling scroll of fallen heroes, remains a stunning complementary comment on the drama.
There are no weak links, with vivid contributions from Nigel Hastings as the casually bluff visiting Colonel and Christian Patterson as the emphatically cheery and overweight Trotter. And in keeping this show on the road in such very fine fettle, Grindley himself deserves more than a mere mention in despatches: he’s performed a national service.