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Reviewed by Charles Spencer 25th July 2011

The sheer vitality of our theatre never ceases to amaze me. This is the time of year when theatre critics traditionally toddle off with their buckets and spades before the rigours of the Edinburgh Festival, but the big openings keep on coming. Two revivals caught my eye last weekend and both bowled me over.

David Grindley’s superb production of Journey’s End (1928), in which the dramatist    R C Sherriff drew on his own experience in the trenches in the First World War, was first seen in the West End in 2004, where it enjoyed great success, and subsequently won a Tony Award on Broadway. After a recent successful British tour, Grindley’s staging is now having another London run, and remains as powerful, moving and emotionally devastating as ever.

The action is all set in a dug-out on the front line in 1918 as the anxious British officers await a big German offensive. The characters are beautifully drawn, from the alcoholic Captain Stanhope (James Norton), a brilliant leader of men who only manages to calm his shredded nerves with prodigious quantities of Scotch, to the kindly middle-aged schoolmaster Lieutenant Osborne and the raw young new recruit Raleigh, who hero worshipped Stanhope when they were at school together.

The play’s mixture of humour, tension and old-fashioned English decency and understatement is beautifully caught in this continuously gripping production, and the performances are superb right through the ranks.

The scene in which the schoolteacher (Dominic Mafham) and the new recruit (Graham Butler) heroically exchange small talk before a raiding party in which both know they are likely to die is as moving as anything on the London stage.