It seems somehow fitting that RC Sherriff had to turn to playwright and social reform campaigner George Bernard Shaw to get his play ‘Journey’s End’ performed in 1929. Shaw described at as a ‘slice of life – horribly abnormal life’ and a ‘useful [corrective] to the romantic conception of war’ and we couldn’t agree more.
Sherriff knew his subject all too well – after serving as an officer for three years he was severely wounded at the battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, a battle which cost the lives of 400,000 british soldiers over 16 weeks of fighting.
What is surprising is that someone who has lived through such an experience could write about it with such objectivity and incisiveness. As Christopher Hart said of modern day author and solidier Patrick Hennessey ‘Soldiers who can write are as rare as writers who can strip down a machinegun in forty seconds’. The play is never sentimental and has a gripping intensity as we witness the daily rituals which each man follows in a deperate attempt to keep sane amidst the horrors of warfare. The entire play is set in the trenches, and we barely witness ‘horror’ in its conventional sense, yet the impact of war on each soldier is palpable as they return to their dugout and their ‘home comforts’ – a cup of tea tasting of onions, whiskey to get rid of the taste of the water, tinned fruit and the occasional fresh fish. Each have their own way of coping, whether it is Osborne’s stoicism which has earned him the title ‘uncle’, Trotter’s unremitting cheerfulness and healthy appetite, or Captain Stanhope’s increasing dependence on whiskey (not a drunk, but a hard drinker as Osborne diplomatically points out).
The action is built up slowly through endless layers of detail which in any other setting would be banal. We learn about Trotter’s unfeasibly tall Hollyhocks, and Osborne’s regret at not having taken in a ‘show’ on his last leave, staying at home with his family instead and being trounced at tin soldiers by his son. The outgoing officer and Osborne speculate on army life, concluding that youngsters ‘fresh from school’ seem to do best. The tension mounts with the arrival of just such a young officer, Raleigh, who has managed to pull some strings to be in the same company as his school hero Stanhope. Stanhope, who has been courting Raleigh’s sister, is appalled to find his previous life coming back to haunt him and is terrified that Raleigh might write home and break the illusion of his former self, ruining his reputation for good. The letter he does write is heartbreaking.
As the spectre of the German offensive looms, the pressure becomes unbearable. The play brilliantly illustrates the resilience of human beings in coping with extreme conditions, and how the acceptance of their situation allows them to keep going, whilst ultimately prolonging the slaughter as the folks back home are kept in igorance.
An interview with director David Grindley on the whatsonstage website describes some of the ways he attempted to keep the acting authentic, and whatever he did, it has worked. The playing space is small but packed with all the paraphernalia of trench life, with just a small shaft of light to suggest what is outside. Only the ‘crump’ of artillery and the rat-a-tat of machine gunfire is heard in the darkness between acts, and the entire play is performed in the apparent gloom of candle and lamp light. Daylight comes only at the curtain call, where a seemingly endless list of tiny names is revealed on a plain white sheet in blinding light as the cast stand silent like statues on a war memorial. In a play with subject matter like this, it seems a gross understatement to call it an ensemble piece, but the cast are all excellent, and can be found here.
We have only just been commenting on the propensity for the West End to seek star names and guaranteed hits. But for us productions like this are the true heroes of West End Theatre, showing how powerful theatre can be with the simplest of settings. It is gratifying to see this production go from strength to strength, originally put on to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the 1929 production, and with repeated returns to the West End since. Long may the journey continue.