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An emotional journey into the dark heart of the trenches that is highly recommended

Review by David Munro

JOURNEY'S End is still running with great success in London and is being hailed as one of the great dramas of the era. That is as maybe but, until the current production, it has not made any particular impact on the London stage, so far as I have been able to discover, since it’s original production in 1929.

That production ran 594 performances and the New York production, whch opened in the same year, ran for 485 performances - no mean feat in an era when, if a play ran more than 200 performances, it was considered a great success.

It will be interesting to see whether the current production surpasses that record. In my view, it should as the current London production (which is well reviewed on this site) seems well settled in at the Playhouse Theatre.

In my review of the change of cast I mentioned that I looked forward to seeing the touring production. I have now done so, and I am pleased to report that my anticipation of pleasure was justified.

To recap, the play deals with life and death in the British trenches during the 1914–18 war, and the way that the various protagonists deal with the strains and stresses that war and the conditions in the trenches place upon them.

The action is bracketed by the arrival and death of Raleigh, virtually a schoolboy, and in the way the audience views the action as he sees it.

The Captain in charge of the small unit billeted just behind the front line is Stanhope, a man Raleigh had known and hero-worshipped before the war, and who is in love with Raleigh’s sister.

Stanhope has sought relief from the horrors of his command in whiskey which, while not affecting his performance as a soldier, clouds his judgement in his relationships with his junior officers.

The mainstay of the unit, and in one sense the play, is Osborne, an ex-schoolmaster, known affectionately as 'Uncle', whose calm common sense keeps Stanhope and his other officers on an even keel.

Mixing humour, commonsense and authority into a believable whole, overriding the petty squabbles of the others with the authority he had acquired in the classroom.

It is interesting how this part has become the 'star part', as opposed to Stanhope.

Originally, it was played by George Zucco, who subsequently became well-known in Hollywood for his villainous portrayals, but who at the time of the original production was only 32.

In London, and on this tour, Osbourne is played by a much older actor, in this instance, Philip Franks, which gives the part more authority and makes more sense of the role he plays in relation to the others.

Philip Franks plays him as a kindly Mr Chips. His performance is beautifully understated, but he still gives the impression of quiet self-confidence and authority that the part requires.

It is a different reading from Malcolm Sinclair, who is now playing it in London, but an equally effective one and his scene with Raleigh, before they go on the mission which results in Osborne’s death, had great poignacy.

The other two officers, Trotter, who has risen from the ranks, and Hibbert, who is feigning illness to get his release, are well played by Roger Walker and Stephen Hudson respectively, and they, too, made their characters convincing despite the stereotypical aspects of their parts.

The main dramatic impetus comes from Stanhope and Raleigh. Stanhope, as played by Tom Wisdom, is perhaps a little too much the head boy rather than the war weary officer.

It is, nonetheless, a good performance and his confrontation scene with Raleigh, where he berates him for his failure to conform, was more effective than I remember from the West End production.

Richard Glaves, as Raleigh, gives a well-paced portrayal of youth, fresh from school, unaware of what he is getting himself into, and only gradually becoming aware of his situation and responsibilities.

His death scene was, perhaps, a little overplayed but apart from that it was a very creditable performance.

The rest of the cast are really supernumeraries; other ranks, captured German soldiers, etc although again they are well played and convincing in what they are called upon to do.

In particular, Stephen Casey gave a good cameo performance as the wry, laconic orderly, Mason, as did Simon Shackleton, as the sympathetic but frustrated Colonel.

As for the production values, I can only repeat what I wrote in my earlier review; namely, that when a cast is as good as this one, you tend to overlook the enormous input the director must have had.

David Grindley’s direction is unobtrusive but it’s impact is enormous.

From the barrage of gunfire before the curtain rises, to the final cacophony, he does not put a foot wrong.

The characters are real, as are the situations they are in.

This is not a phoney war, but a real one with all the sacrifices that entails. For two and a half hours, you are living in the trenches and that, to me, is no mean achievement for a director.

The set of Jonathan Transom is what one would expect from the pictures and descriptions one has read of life in the trenches.

The only minor cavil I have with it is that it did not give feel of cramped space and claustrophobia inherent in the real thing, which I have seen and experienced. Nevertheless, it enhanced the action and seemed as squalid as it should be, so perhaps it is unfair of me to niggle.

Once again, I was sorry when the curtain fell.

This touring production, if not quite so striking as that in the West End, has a great deal of merit in its own right and is definitely worth a journey to see, and one I would willingly undertake again knowing that a good show awaits me at the journey’s end.

I strongly recommend that you take that journey too.

Journey’s End by R C Sheriff. Director, David Grindley; Designer, Jonathan Fensom; Lighting, Jason Taylor; Sound, Gregory Clarke; Fight Director, Paul Benzing.
CAST: Philip Franks; James Staddon; Stephen Casey; Richard Glaves; Tom Wisdom; Roger Walker; Edward Fulton; Simon Shackleton; William Gregory; Christopher Knott.
Producers: Phil Cameron for Background and Mark Goucher.
Richmond Theatre, The Little Green, Richmond, Surrey.
Box Office: 020 8940 0088.

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