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Come Journey's End, there won't be a dry eye in the theatre...

Review by Jack Foley

RC SHERRIFF’S First World War drama, Journey’s End, has often been dubbed ‘the play that swept the world’; and yet, 75 years since it first took to the stage, it has never seemed so pertinent.

The story of men at war may hark from a bygone era of warfare, but the same sense of futility, of loss, and of bravery against nonsensical policy, lies at its heart.

And there really ought not to be a dry eye in the theatre by the time it reaches its shattering conclusion.

David Grindley’s excellent revival at The Comedy Theatre, in Panton Street, may hsve been put on to mark the anniversary, but it also proves an adept piece of commentary.

Its message is clear. The art of warfare may have changed; but the consequences remain the same, and the tragedy is no less wasteful.

The play is set in the days before one of the most intensive German offensives of the First World War, which took place on March 21, 1918, at St Quentin in France, as a group of officers contemplate the impending conflict, and what has gone before.

Led by Geoffrey Streatfeild’s courageous Captain Stanhope, the officers must prepare themselves for the grim inevitability of what lies ahead, as well as coming to terms with the arrival of an eager young recruit, Christian Coulson’s earnest Raleigh, a newly commissioned second lieutenant, who wants nothing more than to serve under (and impress) his former schoolmate, Stanhope.

But whereas Raleigh is a fresh-faced idealist, new to the trenches, Stanhope is a man twisted and broken by war, a pale imitation of his former self, who relies on a whisky bottle to get him through the day, and who happens to be dating Raleigh’s sister.

It is his very real fear that Raleigh’s ‘hero worship’ might turn into disgust, and that letters home may inform his 'woman in waiting' of the changes that have taken place to the man she once knew.

Attempting to reassure him to the contrary is David Haig’s level-headed Osborne, who operates as the heartbeat of the company, while rounding out the cast are the likes of Phil Cornwell’s comic cook, Mason, and Paul Bradley’s overweight officer, Trotter.

The ensuing drama unfolds at a deliberately slow pace, so as to accentuate the impending sense of dread that hangs over the men, while also cranking up the tension to an almost unbearable level towards the end of the second act.

And yet, throughout, proceedings are infused with a nice line in humour, which punctuates the heavier, more emotionally involving elements of the story.

Grindley also pulls a neat trick by allowing the viewer to form their own conclusions - his direction is subtle, even minimalist, at times, especially during an ill-fated raid, in which the audience is left to stare at an empty stage, as the sound of bombing and machine gun fire reverberates around them, allowing their imaginations to run riot.

In an age where the need to show everything in gory, graphic, often slow-mo close-up at the movies over-rides everything, this is an effective reminder of how less can often provide so much more.

It serves to heighten the poignancy of the scenes which come before it, while providing an effective platform for Streatfeild’s Stanhope to breakdown, once the fallout becomes apparent.

Credit, too, deserves to go to Grindley for refusing to become too manipulative. The scenes speak for themselves, such is their power, yet even the Germans are shown to have a human side.

This is a battlefield in which the distinction between good and bad is lost, and only confusion remains.

And it is best illustrated during a monologue in which Haig recalls a moment when a German captain ceased fire to allow the British to carry a critical soldier to safety - before both sides proceeded to blow the hell out of each other on the following day.

This is first and foremost about loss, about sacrifice (both old and young), and about the futility of war.

Of the exemplary performers, Haig probably shines the brightest, providing a deeply affecting father figure to Stanhope and a moral guide to everyone around him.

When Stanhope loses his temper, it is Osborne people turn to for reason, and when advice, or companionship, is needed, it is generally Osborne who provides it.

Needless to say, when he is selected as one of the two officers who must lead the aforementioned raid, the hopelessness of his situation is cleverly and effectively portrayed.

His final scenes with Coulson's Raleigh are among the most emotional I have had the good fortune to see at the theatre for some time. And yet they never become showy in a way that a higher profile actor may have attempted to make them.

But Streatfeild, too, isn't far behind Haig in the performance stakes, flitting between heroic leader and drunken despair with aplomb, and turning his complex Stanhope into a genuinely affecting character.

His final scenes possess a power which smacks home with all of the intensity of one of the bombs which seem to fly over our heads during the final battle 'sequence', and it is his final reaction to the plight his men face that ensures this is a play which will tug at the tear-ducts.

And yet as powerful and heartbreaking as Journey's End is, there is an inspiring element to its anti-war message; one which makes you glad to be alive and grateful to have seen such a mesmerising piece of theatre.

It is, without doubt, one of the finest productions I have seen in the theatre, and one which ensures that, years from now, we shall still remember them...

Journey's End, by RC Sherriff. Directed by David Grindley. Starring David Haig, Geoffrey Streatfeild, Christian Coulson, Phil Cornwell, Paul Bradley. The Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, W1. Seat Prices:
£37.50, £34.50, £27.50, £22.50, £15.00. Thursday matinees £22.50 for best available.
Playing until: May 1, 2004

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