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Brief Encounter With ... Journey's End's David Grindley

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David Grindley's production of RC Sherriff's Journey's End returned to the West End's Duke of York's Theatre on 22 July (previews from 19 July) for a seven-week season as part of its national tour.

The First World War classic, written by Sherriff in 1928, is based on the author's own experience in the trenches and follows a group of officers, positioned behind British lines at St Quentin, France, awaiting their fate.

The play initially opened at the West End's Comedy Theatre on 21 January 2004 (previews from 15 January), 75 years (to the day) since its first West End season at the Savoy Theatre. It then transferred to the Playhouse Theatre and the Duke of York's Theatre, with a subsequent 2007 Broadway run and has played two national tours. The most recent of which started from Malvern Theatre on 9 February 2011.

David Grindley talks to Whatsonstage.com's Andrew Girvan about enduring nature of the show and bringing the piece back to the West End.

Journey’s End first went into rehearsal at the beginning of December 2003, then we opened in January 2004. But I’ve been involved since November 2002. I met the original producer Phil Cameron because he was keen to revise a production he had done previously in another country. That 12-month period saw numerous bumps in the road.

Theatre managers were quite anxious about a large cast, there are 11 members. I was very fortunate that Phil backed me on that. You had to really highlight how young the two leads were in comparison to other members in the trench.

The turning point for the production happening was in the middle of Summer 2003. I happened to just be looking at the text again and I read the front of the piece, the biography, and the first production was opened on 21 January 1929 and it suddenly struck me that the 75th anniversary of the production would be 21 January 2004 and immediately I got on the phone and told Phil here’s a hook - if we cant get these dates then the show just isn’t meant to be, we’ve got to try and get it on that date and make a feature of it.

So that’s exactly what he did. We were taken on by the Comedy Theatre for eight weeks in order to make a feature of that date and then move out. Without perpetuating a cliché, but its true, the eight weeks became 18 months, a year of continuous run in the West End then a break then we came back again between September 2005 and February 2006.

It’s the most extraordinary play. I have to say I’ve become obsessed by RC Sherriff. He’s such an astonishing man because he really was quite happy being a very shy, very retiring man and was quite happy providing insurance policies to small businesses around the area between Putney and Windsor. His experience of the First World War meant there was a story he just had to tell in memory. I think he had a real sense of survivor’s guilt. He had a need to commemorate those he served with. By writing this play - it started as a novel but it didn’t quite work - and keeping the dialogue of the characters he knew in the trenches, he found he had an instinctive ability for dramatic structure.

Although all they seem to do is eat meals, the audience are on the edge of their seats. The war is in the background and the play is set just before the last great German offensive, Operation Michael, the audience are aware they are driving towards a potentially tragic conclusion. Equally half of the story is the relationship between two boys and hero worship. You’ve got this very human story at the heart of it. Fundamentally what really grabs people about this story is the uniqueness of this situation. These men are real men in the army.

When our designer Jonathan Fensom travelled to France to do some research amongst the battlefields, we were very struck by the claustrophobic surroundings people lived in in the trenches; we wanted to simulate that in the theatre and make it very real. So the acting area is very small. There’s room for everybody to sit round the table and that’s about it. There’s hardly enough room to swing a cat and its constant in the rehearsals negotiations about hats and helmets because theres just no space to put everything in. There’s packed mud, made of latex, which we put water on and gravel on the floor and the tunnel.

There’s more set off stage than there is on stage because the tunnels extend off stage and they really feel as if they’re entering on to an underground confined environment. At the same time they wear uniforms that we don’t wash and ask them to throw on the floor when they come off stage. We want to have a sense that these are lived in, so they stink. You go to the theatre after its been playing for weeks and it certainly has a certain aroma to say the least.

What’s so astonishing about this play is the way relationships, in every incarnation of this show, are really forged. You usually do a show, get on quite well and that’s it, its that transitory environment that we all know and love. But countless times in this I’ve seen numerous people bond over this production. What is so fabulous, and I’m not making a big thing about it being all-male, but I think it is all the actors. I’ve worked with about 83 on this show.

We’re now in the second incarnation of the show and the cast are wanting to make it their own. And what’s interesting is seeing how the show makes them their own. As soon as they start to understand how the show works and their relationships with each other work, the play takes hold of them rather than the other way around.

I'm also working on a play called Our Boys. We haven’t landed it yet, it's an ongoing process which is very interesting. I seem to be reliving Journey’s End in a sense. We’ve had a number of actors attached to it but we are having problems putting a date on it.

When I first came to London in 1993 I worked on the show. I was the assistant stage manager, a 23-year-old intern, it was put on on a shoestring and I had no expectation of what it would be like to work with professional actors. Even 18 years on its one of the best productions I’ve ever worked on because until that show was on its feet, and particularly those six actors who played those roles, I had no idea just how potent this story would be and this play would be in front of an audience.

What’s been brilliant is meeting so many talented younger actors who are so committed to the production. If they get it, they immediately get it, and bind in and I hope that interest continues. They’re attached to it and can see what this could be if it works. It's an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle.

It is very visual, there are a number of things you cannot get of the page so potently, for example there’s one of the characters who starts off catatonic, severely injured and he hardly says anything in the whole play. Each time you see him he’s in a different stage of recovery. So you go from seeing his terrible fate at the beginning to him in full dress packing his kit bag to go back off to serve.

I’ve witnessed it, because I was the guy on the original production who had to find Jake Wood backstage. He was 17-years-old at the time. Not surprising, he was a pistol when he was a teenager and he would come to the stage just in time, with a cigarette in his mouth, throw himself into the wheelchair and throw his cigarette away just as I was pushing him on. At the exact moment he was visible to the audience he’d go right into the character, into the play. That was astonishing to see.

It’s a tough ask to make it work but I’m convinced it will work like Journey’s End, where people will like it.

The key thing about Journey’s End and Our Boys is they’re very well written. It starts off that you’re meeting characters who have been or are under intense stress and it’s the consequences that provide a dramatic narrative starting point and puts you in a different place from other dramas. There’s real grip to the starting premise and how the actors are going to react to the situations so they are fearful and it has an enormous hold over an audience.

So much particularly with Britain, there’s an attitude of humour about dealing with this. Because the tension is ramped up and the pressure on the characters needs to be relieved by comedy so the comic element is very vital and potent, which is always surprising to people.

Journey's End opened at the Duke of Yorks on 22 July (previews from 19 July) where continues its 55-performance run until 3 September 2011. The production then continues its tour to Nottingham, Coventry, Salford, Woking, High Wycombe, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Wolverhampton, Milton Keynes, Aberdeen and Glasgow.


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