‘Journey’s End’ at Duke of Yorks

In many ways ‘Journey’s End’ by R C Sherriff, currently playing at Duke of Yorks could be a collection of recognisable clichés of First World War imagery; trenches, stiff upper lips, talks of a topping adventure, quiet honour and chaps from public schools.  But in David Grindlay’s production these familiar tropes are so truthfully shown they have a gripping, moving authenticity.

Written by Sherriff, based on his own wartime experiences, it has no real agenda other than as a portrait of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  In the dugout there is talk of food, ‘cutlets’ made from formed meat, onion flavoured tea, fresh fish only to be dreamt of unless invited to battalion HQ.  No wonder everyone focussed on cigarettes and whiskey.

Eighteen year old second lieutenant Raleigh is the new arrival in the company commanded by the boy he had idolised at school, Captain Stanhope.  There is only three years between then in age, but a lifetime of experience on the battlefield has altered Stanhope irrevocably.  Raleigh is young and excited about the great adventure on which he is embarking; the contrast with Stanhope’s world weary bitterness and desperate dependency on alcohol is stark.

The production is dark, both literally and figuratively.  As the lights in the theatre went down the auditorium filled with the deep rumbling of gunfire that resonated through my ribcage, large reports made some of the many children in the audience cry out in alarm.

The stage is dimly lit throughout, forcing a concentration in the members of the audience.  The relative darkness, the drab uniforms and the spareness of the staging mean that it’s all down to the performances, which are excellent, creating fully rounded characters, whose fate matters to all of us.

The play is set in the few days before an anticipated big attack; Stanhope’s efforts and planning to keep his company as secure as possible are undermined by an order to send a raiding party to the German trenches only a few yards away to capture some prisoners.

Half of the raid group do not return, and it is a terrible harbinger of what is likely to happen next.  As the curtain falls, there are three minutes or so of a crescendo of bombardment, louder and louder, until we have no doubt that few will survive.

At the curtain call the cast stand in a silent, still line as the rising curtain gradually reveals more and more names engraved on a stone cenotaph behind them.

An affecting, thought provoking production.

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2 Comments

  1. Jill Goldberg

     /  July 27, 2011

    Your description is very vivid. Solemn stuff.

    Reply

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