Journey's End

R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End, inspired by his own experiences of life in the trenches during the First World War, stands as an authoritative exploration of men “in extremis”. As this measured touring production from Immersion Theatre shows, humans will find their own ways of coping in almost any situation. Nearly a century on from the play’s setting, Sherriff’s writing is a timeless appreciation of human bravery within the most horrendous of environments.

This is a fine production, but it occasionally fails to land its emotional punches with the full force they deserve.

That’s not to say the play doesn’t show its age; director James Tobias is arguably slightly too reverential towards a text which, by today’s standards, is sluggish and marred by a tendency to tell rather than show—not least when filling in the backgrounds of its main characters. This is particularly the case with Stanhope, the company commander who’s been on the Front for most of the War and continues to function psychologically only by drinking a bottle of whisky a day. “I’ve had my share of luck, more than my share,” he tells his second-in-command, the good-natured Osborne, at one point; it’s with an awareness that getting out the other side of the War looks increasingly unlikely.

There’s little physical action in Journey’s End; a much-anticipated German attack is kept to the end and, even then, is played largely off-stage. The meat of Sherriff’s drama is therefore in the relationships between the five officers confined within the dug-out; not least Stanhope, arguably paranoid about the new young officer assigned to his company. Stanhope immediately assumes that Raleigh (who had previously looked up to him as a hero at school) is all-too-likely to write home to his sister—Stanhope’s unofficial fiancé—about his new commander’s tattered nerves and alcoholism.

Stanhope is by no means an easy role to play, but there’s something about Tom Grace’s performance that initially lacks the depth to fully convince us of his tortured soul. Matt Ray Brown and Rory Fairbairn, in contrast—while having the seemingly easier task of bringing life to good-natured Osborne and young innocent Raleigh—both imbue their roles with a realism and understanding that’s genuinely moving. John Rayment as Trotter, who seems to measure his life in meals, lands his lighter comedic moments with real skill, while Alexander Tol gives a genuinely physical performance as Hibbert, the officer for whom everything is already too much.

According to the programme notes, Journey’s End “was designed by Sherriff as an exposé of the senselessness of war – and as a warning against it.” The problem that any new production of this play now faces is that much of what it does has arguably been done better, and more speedily, in Blackadder Goes Forth. In comparison, Journey’s End feels at times ponderous, relying too much on the slow drip feed of small personal details to keep us interested. This is a fine production, but it occasionally fails to land its emotional punches with the full force they deserve.   

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Multiple Venues

Nests

★★★
Dundee Rep Theatre / Macrobert Arts Centre

The Yellow on the Broom

★★★
Underbelly, Bristo Square

Tom Neenan: It's Always Infinity

★★★★
Assembly George Square Studios

Police Cops in Space

★★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Rik Carranza: Still a Fan

★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Marmite

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

March 1918. The war to end all wars.

Anxiety builds in Captain Stanhope’s claustrophobic dugout as the threat of an imminent German attack looms over the battalion. As final orders are received, Stanhope must stir his men to overcome the uncertainty of the unknown, make the ultimate sacrifice and prepare to go over the top in a truly heart wrenching climax.

Journey’s End is a harrowing insight into the humanity of the First World War based on R. C. Sherriff’s own experiences in the trenches. Utterly compelling, this award winning classic masterfully brings the courage, valour, humour and inescapable tragedy of warfare to the stage.