Amongst the myriad events marking the centenary of the start of the First World War,Sutton Arts Theatre chose R C Sherriff’s “Journeys End” as their offering. Written in 1928, some fourteen years after the event, Sherriff originally struggled to find a theatre to stage it. Fortunately a letter of endorsement by George Bernard Shaw ensured its first night at the Apollo theatre, with a young Laurence Olivier taking the lead role of Captain Stanhope. The production subsequent ran in the West End for two years.
The single set, an officer’s mess in a dug out, is convincingly created by John Islip and his team, dank claustrophobic and scant refuge from the savagery which envelops it.
Sherriff’s account of life in the trenches benefits from the authenticity of his experiences serving in, and being wounded in, the trenches. The language and dialogue is of its time with decent public school types, and times being topping or beastly, but its everyman tale of war comes from the heart and still moves the soul. That skill was later to shine in his screenplay for “The Dambusters”.
The play opens with contemporary battlefield film projected onto a front screen, and ends with a roll of remembrance for those who gave their lives during Operation Michael. Simple candles provide the only illumination save for the backlit steps in a white light only production which is introduced by an in depth analysis of a sock, which was as exciting as it was for much of the time in the trenches. Director Emily Armstrong is fortunate in having Robert Newton as the lead, Captain Stanhope. Newton carries the production with his neurotic, powerful, compelling portrayal of a young man burdened with the responsibilities of command. Alan Lowe is a strong support as “Uncle” Lieutenant Osborne, a quiet, assured, touchstone for Stanhope, and the conscience of the tale. Jon Flood is outstanding as rookie fresh faced second Lieutenant Raleigh, whose gushing enthusiasm is soon tempered by the cruelty of conflict. To modern eyes the characters are well established stereotypes, an officer suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; a quietly heroic school teacher, and po-faced top brass.
Sherriff’s script is much stronger in the second half than the first, which both run to around seventy five minutes. The defining scene is when Stanhope confronts a terrified second Lieutenant Hibbert who is determined to try to leave his post. Tom Frater movingly emotes Hibbert’s distress, Stanhope combines pugnacity with compassion.
The writing combines typical soldiers black humour with a whimsy which the television series MASH developed several decades later. Osborne quotes Lewis Carroll: “‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,/ ‘To talk of many things:/ Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax – / Of cabbages and kings’.” Mason, the cook, is pilloried for running out of pepper: “War is bad enough with pepper. Without pepper it’s…bloody awful.”
Emily Armstrong skilfully negotiates an effective ending with Stanhope mourning the death of a colleague as the cacophony of a German onslaught deafens, the players gathering for the curtain call behind a mesh curtain as the roll call of the actual dead plays on the front of the curtain. Poignant and moving. Journey’s End runs until Saturday 6th September.