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Review: Journey’s End, at Malvern Festival Theatre

By Terry Grimley
Feb 18 2011


R C Sherriff’s First World War play proved an international hit in 1929 despite being comprehensively rejected by the London theatre establishment.
More recent attempts to revive it, including this award-winning one originally directed by David Grindley in 2004, have had to overcome the unfair perception that the piece is too static and dated to speak to a modern audience.
It’s static, certainly. But the claustrophobic setting, in a small dugout where a group of officers awaits the onslaught of the German offensive in March 1918, gives the play a unique tension. And despite some redundant public school vocabulary it is really dated only in the best sense, in that it gives a unique dramatic insight into a time and place otherwise inaccessible to us.
In the few years since this production completed its highly successful first outing the Western Front has literally passed from living memory. This is a vivid picture of what it was like, written by someone who was there.
Beyond the intense personal drama it unfolds, Journey’s End is a rich historic and social document. It shows, for example, that driven to the extreme of hiding in a muddy hole in Northern France, the English upper middle class would still not be without its servants.
There is endless discussion of the food served by the laconic Private Mason, a symptom of the dull routine of trench life in-between traumatic events.
At the play’s core is the confrontation between innocence and experience, embodied in the newly-arrived Raleigh and his older school contemporary Stanhope, the company commander transformed by three years in the front line into a nerve-shattered alcoholic.
James Norton’s Stanhope is a persuasive depiction of a complicated character who is simultaneously a first-class officer and an emotional wreck whose treatment of his colleagues can be wildly erratic.
Another outstanding performance is Dominic Mafham’s as Osborne, the kindly ex-schoolmaster whose seeming unflappability says much for the solid social certainties which sustained the war effort. Only at one silent moment, as he struggles to light his pipe with trembling hands at the prospect of leading a suicidal raid on the German trenches, do we get a glimpse of what lies behind the composed exterior.
The scene where Osborne and Raleigh count down the final minutes to the raid by talking about country walks ranks with the most poignant in British theatre. And overall David Grindley’s fine production should finally lay to rest the notion that this classic has had its day.
Running time: Two hours, 40 minutes. Until Saturday. 
Rating * * * * *