R. C. Sheriff’s classic First World War drama had its premiere in the West End 81 years ago this month. For anyone who missed David Grindley’s acclaimed 2004 revival, both in the West End and on tour, this excellent new touring production by the Original Theatre Company and Icarus Theatre Collective offers a chance to catch up with a great piece of dramatic writing.
Although the setting is the rat-infested trenches at Saint-Quentin, France, in 1918, this well-crafted work retains a terrible relevance. Apparently Sheriff was quite put out that the play later acquired a reputation as an anti-war statement. What was intended, he insisted, was a study of men under pressure but motivated by a strong and unquestioning sense of duty. A good deal of the play’s power stems from the ambiguous tension between their circumstances and behaviour and all that remains unspoken between them about the bigger picture. The latter is, of course, the monumental ideological, socio-political and commercial machinery behind what they’re fighting for. That, however, wasn’t Sheriff’s concern.
All the action occurs in an officers’ dugout only 100 or so yards from the front line, and convincingly rendered by the designer Victoria Spearing. Word is that in a few short days the Germans will attack. But for the men living — or, if you choose to adopt the anti-war stance, waiting very possibly to die — in that grubby location, time passes with excruciating slowness in a round of eerily uneventful watches, uninspired meals and snatches of fitful sleep. (One of the alternative titles for the play was, tellingly, Waiting.) Sheriff is exceptionally good at balancing their wearying routine against the dramatist’s need to introduce and reveal his characters and then detonate the conflicts between them. The director Alastair Whatley taps into the playwright’s rhythms straightaway. He is blessed with a sterling ensemble headed by Christopher Harper as the dashing, desperately highly-strung young captain driven to drink to drown his nerves, Tom Hackney as the almost impossibly fresh-faced kid who just about worships him, and Graham Seed as an avuncular second-in-command with a touching fondness for reading Alice in Wonderland before heading into battle.
On the first night these and other admirably nuanced performances were already ringing true. But then, taking his cue from Sheriff, Whatley makes every role count, including his own one as an officer with a sarcastically stiff upper lip. He and his cast mine the script’s humour without impairing its ability to move us. Whatever its creator meant it to be, Journey’s End is a timepiece that still strikes at the waste of war.
Next Sunday (March 21) marks the anniversary of the fateful day in 1918 when the German army made an onslaught on the British soldiers in the rat-infested trenches of St Quentin.
RC Sherriff’s own experiences in the trenches inspired him to write what has become a classic First World War play, convincingly capturing the resignation and resolve of the soldiers compelled to wait for their impending 'journey’s end'. Their bunker is eerily quiet before the storm of an unequal battle. Between watches, time goes slowly, boredom relieved by small talk of home, complaints about the grub, confrontations under stress.
An alternative title for the play was 'Waiting' – and that is the substance of the drama, as the officers in their dugout await the inevitable, drinking whisky out of tin mugs, hiding fear, sharing humour, each personality coping – or not - in his own way.
Leading them is young Captain Stanhope, driven, unrelenting, relying on whisky to keep going, compellingly portrayed by Christopher Harper (and by Laurence Olivier in the original production which ran for two years at the Savoy Theatre in 1928).
He is only disconcerted when a former hero-worshipping schoolmate, played by Tom Hackney, joins his company as a young officer. The excellent Graham Seed (Nigel Pargeter in The Archers) is Stanhope’s second-in-command, older, pipe-smoking, laid back and reading Alice in Wonderland before going into battle.
Director Alastair Whatley has assembled an all-round fine cast for this exceptional touring production by the Original Theatre Company and Icarus Theatre Collective. It’s a penetrating and perceptive account of Sherriff’s masterful microcosm of war, of its time, but clearly not without relevance today.
Designer Victoria Spearing captures the cluttered and claustrophobic dugout with telling effect.
On the opening night the performance was cut short by a malfunction of the safety curtain, which added to the drama. But this production is worth journeying to Buxton for – a rare chance to see a real classic immaculately performed.
The Icarus Theatre Collective of London are on tour with a strong and deeply moving production of RC Sherriff's great play Journey's End, set over 24 hours in an officers' dugout near the Western Front during the First World War. Sherriff's play makes no bones about the limitations of the characters it portrays: the terror they feel, the drink they need to get them through, the class attitudes that surround their life and work. But it is also relentless in its exposure of the pitiful waste of life in a war that made some English attitudes – and some key aspects of British society – impossible to sustain, and in Alistair Whatley's fine production there are outstandingly subtle, heartfelt performances from Graham Seed, Tom Hackney and Christopher Harper as the three officers at the centre of this magnificent story, about a war that did not end all wars, but changed everything.
Based on R.C. Sherriff’s own experience in the trenches of World War One, ‘Journey’s End’ is a powerful and poignant production that starkly illustrates the futility of war. Set within a claustrophobic dugout where time creeps to a standstill as soldiers await their orders, the story centres around the young, talented and war-weary Captain Stanhope (Christopher Harper).
The first thing that strikes you, as you enter the auditorium, is the stunning set that so effectively recreates the dark, dank, rat-infested dug-out. No detail has been overlooked in Victoria Spearing’s magnificent design. Credit should also be given for Alan Valentine’s superb lighting design and Dominic Bilkey’s equally successful sound design, both of which brilliantly evoke the hellish atmosphere of the Western Front.
The play, for the most part, is dialogue-based as we are introduced to a series of officers and soldiers. There’s the avuncular, pipe-smoking, level-headed Osbourne (Graham Seed), the put-upon cook Private Mason (Adam Best), the cowardly Hibbert (Rhys King) and the fresh-faced Raleigh (Tom Hackney) who is an old schoolmate of the whisky-swigging Stanhope.
Raleigh’s hero-worship of Stanhope’s school-days prowess at rugger and cricket now manifests itself in his admiration of his leadership skills on the front line.
Each of the men must face the hardships of trench-life and deal with their fear in their own way. The older, more experienced men reminisce about gardening, trips to the theatre and walking in the New Forest, whilst the younger men attempt to hold on to the notion that war is an adventure that has the potential to transform them into heroes
In essence the point of the piece is to convey the message that war destroys not only the lives of men, but also their minds and souls, too. Stanhope must continue to motivate and inspire his men to make the ultimate sacrifice for a war he no longer understands and for a cause he no longer remembers.
‘Journey’s End’ is very much an ensemble piece and it would be difficult and probably rather unfair to pick out one actor over another. Each and every performance is consummately delivered. Indeed, this is a profound piece of theatre that highlights the heroism, humour and tragedy of warfare.
Eighty-two years since its first performance in London, the renowned wartime play Journey’s End is still touching, heartbreaking, and relevant. As dead soldiers have been paraded in Wooten Basset upon their return from Afghanistan, Journey’s End reminds audiences about the sacrifices made in 1914-1918.
After the war, R. C. Sherriff’s play was wrongly interpreted as “anti-war”, and it is obvious why. Harrowing screams of pain, sporadic whimpers of fear, and endless, tedious waiting, all seem to emphasise the futility of war. Yet, this was not Sheriff’s intention; camaraderie, friendship and love are entrenched into the play and shed a positive light on the war.
Based on Sherriff’s own experiences, Journey’s End is set in the trenches at Saint-Quentin, France, towards the end of the First World War. The play follows the lives of six officers awaiting a German offensive, focusing on one particular officer, Stanhope.
Once a fine young gentleman at school and an exceptional “rugger” player, after three years of war he is an alcoholic veteran, and must inspire his comrades to face their imminent deaths. Time passes slowly as the soldiers wait, before racing to a heart wrenching climax as the soldiers face their “journey’s end.”
Directed by Alastair Whatley, the performances were magnificent; in particular, Rhys King’s portrayal of the agitated Hibbert was sensational and heartbreaking. Tom Hackney’s performance of Raleigh was also thoroughly compelling, and Graham Seed (Osbourne) and Christopher Harper (Stanhope) were consistently strong throughout the play.
The set was simple, but the atmosphere was remarkably believable. The lighting and sound effects complemented each other to produce frightening action scenes, and the smell of tobacco filled the theatre, enveloping the audience and drawing us in to their tiny dugout.
THE horrors of the First World War are well documented. But what about the tedium and anxiety of everyday life in the trenches?
Between the bloodshed, how did time pass for the soldiers hunkered down in the dugouts – all the while knowing that their next engagement with the enemy might be their last?
This, as much as the futility of the war itself, is the subject of RC Sherriff’s enduring drama, first staged ten years after the end of the conflict.
Eighty-two years on, this ensemble character piece still makes for gripping drama, its observations on the human spirit under fire seeming surprisingly modern.
The action – or rather inaction (the play’s original title was Waiting) – takes place in a British officers’ dugout in the days leading up to the big German advance of March 1918. Each soldier deals with the knowledge of impending battle in his own way.
Stolid, unimaginative Trotter (Gareth Davies) obsesses about bacon and marks off the hours on an improvised wall-chart; excitable new arrival Raleigh (Tom Hackney) can’t wait to get stuck in; the wise and kindly Osborne (Graham Seed) reads Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a madness far preferable to the one hovering between the lines. But it is their alcoholic commanding officer, Stanhope (Christopher Harper), on whom the burden of time and responsibility weighs heaviest.
This co-production by The Original Theatre Company, Icarus Theatre Collective and Anvil Arts is solid and involving, with excellent performances – especially Harper’s brittle turn as the rapidly unravelling Stanhope – complemented by a detailed set and atmospheric sound and lighting.
Young Raleigh (Tom Hackney) is fresh out of public school when he arrives in a dugout near St Quentin in March 1918. As avuncular officer Osborne (Graham Seed) remarks in a masterpiece of understatement: “Rugby and cricket seem rather a long way away from here.” By chance or manipulation – it’s never quite clear which – Raleigh’s commanding officer, Stanhope (Christopher Harper), was at the same school, and regarded as a hero by Raleigh. Their changing relationship will become crucial as a massive German advance begins.
R. C. Sherriff’s classic play Journey’s End is, first and foremost, a superbly written documentary of life and death in the trenches – Sherriff himself served as a captain in the First World War. It’s also a wry observation of the British class system of the time – the dugout is strictly officers only, and while the food may be revolting, dinner is still served by an orderly (Adam Best). Only the amiable Trotter (Gareth Davies) has risen from the ranks, as his accent reveals. Thirdly, Sherriff – amazingly for a play written in 1928 – deals with the mental scars of war. Hibbert (Rhys King) asks to go to hospital: “You’re a bloody funk,” roars Stanhope, who deals with his own demons via the whisky bottle. The possibility that Hibbert may actually be deeply troubled never occurs to him.
Journey’s End needs no adornment or interference, something that director Alastair Whatley plainly understands in this fine Original Theatre Company and Icarus Theatre Collective production. Aided by powerful ensemble acting, the words are left to speak for themselves. Sherriff wrote: “It’s a play in which not a word is against the war, and no word of condemnation is uttered.” But, of course, as tension mounts in the dugout and you wonder who will die first, you cannot banish your own views – or images of hearses passing through Wootton Bassett on their way to the John Radcliffe Hospital.
While I cannot speak for the rest of the full house at the close of Alastair Whatley's gripping new production of R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End at The Haymarket, Basingstoke, this week, my own feelings were of something lost.
Nothing wrong with the performances, rather my own inability to pay the company proper respect. For within seconds of the silencing of that dreadful barrage at St Quentin, the full company were on stage for their so well-earned call.
Whereas I was gripped still with the enormity of it all. A few moments of silence was required - perhaps even a glimpse of sunset - while I, and for all I know the rest of the audience, too, digested what we had just seen.
That may seem a petty, even ungracious, complaint after a splendid revival of Sherriff's bitterly realistic depiction of life in an officer's dugout during the last days of The Great War. All the same, I think that directors have a duty not only to entertain but also to remember just what impact their work, especially at its best, may have on us.
That aside, the first and last impression of this production is of Victoria Spearing's excellent set. I could feel the discomfort, taste the bodged food, and I could hear the rats.
Only the birdsong is missing - strange thought that: in the midst of carnage are, sometimes, birdsong and sunlight.
The ten-strong company are all of them heroes, from Private Mason's gallant catering against the odds; Trotter's heartfelt grumbling about the same food and Hibbert's desperate attempts to cheat his way out of it all to the sanctuary of the MO's tent. Even he, in today's enlightened times, can be hero rather than coward.
Graham Seed, too, is a splendid "Uncle" Osborne, chewing amiably on his pipe as he chats nostalgically about life in the New Forest, before checking his watch and stepping out to an inevitable death.
Tom Hackney's Raleigh is nicely fresh faced with a well-judged touch of hero-worship in his voice, contrasting well with the biting cynicism of Christopher Harper's excellently paced Stanhope, the role so briefly created by the young Olivier.
Knight Mantell is the Colonel, with a ruthlessly stiff upper lip, while Zac Houlton is the Sergeant Major, Hubert Mainwaring-Burton the luckless German prisoner and Alastair Whatley the officer who helps set the scene before climbing, it seems, out of the dugout and out of the war.
This powerfully emotive production brings together the dusty claustrophobia of the First World War front line trenches and the touching camaraderie of its soldiers in arms with poignant credibility.
Set in the officers’ dugout, the play clearly shows the carriage of authority from high rank to field and is a testament to the defence force whose psychological and physical well-being is sorely tested.
RC Sherriff’s play is a masterpiece in characterisation using individuals with clearly defined attributes who honour mankind’s ability to persevere in the face of adversity and death.
The prime role here is that of Stanhope who leads his men with strength and compassion despite his own mental breakdown which he holds in check to protect his colleagues. Christopher Harper excels in a superb portrayal of a man at the brink of physical exhaustion and mental collapse, but for whom duty drives him on.
Graham Seed as Osborne gives a balanced view of the situation with his pragmatic, school-masterly kindness and Tom Hackney is the newly-recruited Raleigh whose tentative enthusiasm is all the more touching for the fatalistic inevitability of the situation.
Knight Mantell is ideal as the commanding Colonel, with Rhys King giving a strong performance as Hibbert, Gareth Davies as the down to earth Trotter and Adam Best as Mason the cook whose flippant one-liners help sanity to survive in the oppressing conditions.
The cast is completed by Zac Holton as the Sergeant Major, Hubert Mainwaring-Burton as the captured German soldier and the production’s director Alastair Whatley as Hardy.
R C Sherriff's First World War drama about a small group of soldiers waiting for the big German push is always relevant, as we continue to send young men to die on our behalf. Despite being slightly formulaic in the mix of characters – here we have public school types, a louche coward and a salt-of-the-earth officer risen from the ranks – it still packs a punch; the accents and expressions may be period, the emotional power is timeless.
Here the actors do the piece the compliment of playing it with a straight bat. The old fashioned slang, and the old fashioned attitudes that go with it are given a chance to work on their own terms.
In this production, it's the older characters that take the acting honours. Graham Seed’s Osborne is excellent as he forms a contrast with the youngsters, with a moving, measured and thoughtful performance - his scene with Tom Hackney as the young Raleigh while they prepare for a suicidally dangerous sortie is very well done. And Knight Mantell gets a nicely queasy equivocation into the colonel who retreats into bombast when he has to pass on orders, knowing how mad they are.
The young men suffer from all having voices in just the same register, so their climactic confrontations are hard to make sense of. Christopher Harper‘s Stanhope gets the terrible tension of a young man carrying his responsibility heavily, but with everything just this side of hysteria it's difficult to discern the hero that everyone loves so much.
It's all set in a trench, a claustrophobic, temporary sanctuary from a mad world outside, which at the end collapses - its safety exposed as another illusion. Victoria Spearing's set is rather too neat, the space too open to work completely. Otherwise this is a production that effectively anatomises the inevitable march to disaster, marching to the drumbeat sound of gunfire. It is, however, careless with detail. Soldiers, for instance, mind about their uniforms, so actors playing them should at least know how to put a belt on.
SET entirely in an officers’ dugout in the trenches of the First World War, Journey’s End is an intense examination of bravery, friendship and manhood.
Seeing Stanhope, a charismatic alcoholic, trying to galvanise his company for an expected German assault cannot fail to make you thankful to be alive now, rather than 100 years ago – or at any similarly bloodthirsty period in our history.
The RC Sherriff play was first performed on a single evening in 1928, with Laurence Olivier playing Stanhope. One can only imagine how harrowing it must have been for a British audience for whom the scars of the war that was to end all wars remained painfully fresh.
More than 80 years on, the work still has the power to leave an audience drained, robbed of emotion and feeling emptily helpless.
Graham Seed, the voice of Nigel Pargetter in The Archers, is outstanding as steady old Osbourne, while Christopher Harper, whose TV credits include Life on Mars, The Bill and Doctors, is enthralling as Stanhope.
Although there is a surprising amount of humour – much provided by Mason (Adam Best) and Trotter (Gareth Davies) – don’t go expecting a laugh. But do go.
It may be more than 80 years since RC Sherriff’s painfully revealing First World War drama was first presented on the London stage but Journey’s End still has the power to move contemporary audiences to tears.
It focuses on the lives of a small company of British soldiers in the mud and misery of the trenches.
Set in the final months of a war that would cost more than a million British lives, it explores the tensions, and fears as they prepare to repel an impending German attack.
Christopher Harper plays company commander Captain Stanhope, a one-time clean-cut sporting hero who, at 21, is already a veteran of three years on the front line - and an alcohol-soaked wreck.
Tom Hackney is Raleigh, the young officer who once idolised Stanhope on the school rugger pitch but soon discovers the brutal truth about war and the men who really give the orders.
Graham Seed, best known as Nigel Pargeter in The Archers, plays the steady, mature and wise second in command, Osbourne.
They have one thing in common - an unquestioning acceptance that they must obey orders whatever they are.
Each deals with it in his own very different way. With a great set, lighting and sound and genuinely believable costumes, this is a fine reading of Sherriff’s play made all the more relevant by the rising death toll in Afghanistan
"[T]his excellent new touring production by the Original Theatre Company and Icarus Theatre Collective offers a chance to catch up with a great piece of dramatic writing."
"Although the setting is the rat-infested trenches at Saint-Quentin, France, in 1918, this well-crafted work retains a terrible relevance."
"The director Alastair Whatley taps into the playwright’s rhythms straightaway."
"On the first night [the] admirably nuanced performances were already ringing true... Whatley makes every role count"
"Eighty-two years on, this ensemble character piece still makes for gripping drama"
This co-production by The Original Theatre Company, Icarus Theatre Collective and Anvil Arts is solid and involving, with excellent performances
"[T]he first and last impression of this production is of Victoria Spearing's excellent set."
"Graham Seed... is a splendid "Uncle" Osborne [and] Tom Hackney's Raleigh is nicely fresh faced with a well-judged touch of hero-worship in his voice, contrasting well with the biting cynicism of Christopher Harper's excellently paced Stanhope"
"[A] powerfully emotive production"
"RC Sherriff’s play is a masterpiece in characterisation using individuals with clearly defined attributes"
"Christopher Harper excels in a superb portrayal of a man at the brink of physical exhaustion and mental collapse"
"Knight Mantell is ideal as the commanding Colonel, with Rhys King giving a strong performance as Hibbert"
"[Journey's End] packs a punch; the accents and expressions may be period, the emotional power is timeless."
"Graham Seed’s Osborne is excellent as he forms a contrast with the youngsters, with a moving, measured and thoughtful performance"