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Review: Thought-provoking Journey's End at the Swan

12:19pm Tuesday 24th May 2011

JOURNEY’S End tells the story of a group of First World War soldiers in the trenches in the days leading up to a devastating offensive from the German army.

Needless to say, it is not exactly cheery stuff - if you wanted something fluffy and uplifting you might have come to the wrong play.

If, on the other hand, you are after something powerful, thought-provoking and affecting, then this tale certainly fits the bill.

Portrayals of life in the trenches may seem familiar these days, thanks to a range of books, poems and films, from Birdsong to Blackadder via All Quiet On The Western Front.

But to accuse Journey’s End of being predictable would be unfair - written in the 1920s and based on the experiences of its writer, RC Sherriff, it has provided its share of inspiration to those wartime stories that have come since.

And while it may not offer much in the way of surprises it has a sense of dreadful inevitability that adds a great deal to its impact.

As harrowing a tale as this sometimes is, though, it is certainly not filled with unrelenting gloom.

The dialogue - though dated - is fast, smart and often funny. It subtly and cleverly illuminates the hopes and fears of its main characters, bringing them convincingly to life despite the odd archaic phrase (the painstakingly pronounced “rath-er!” crops up more than once).

And there is a real warmth and humanity to the relationships the play portrays - from the hard-drinking officer who is barely recognizable to his young friend from home, to the older soldier giving comfort and advice to his comrades.

There is plenty of humour, capturing the camaraderie of the troops in their trudging everyday life, with some pitch perfect comic timing demonstrated by the cast.

The play was controversial in its time but now seems relatively gentle at first glance - certainly compared to the stomach-churning portrayals of warfare we are used to these days.

This is a deceptive simplicity though - it may be mannered and relatively polite, but that just means the intense moments of the play hit use with that much more force.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with a fantastically underplayed performance from Dominic Mafham as Lieutenant ‘Uncle’ Osborne. An everyman figure, we see the rest of the characters through his eyes - certainly at the start of the play - and he sets the tone of compassion and decency that runs throughout the tale.

The design of the single set is simple and effective - a gloomy view of life in the trenches - with clever lighting and sound effects used to extremely atmospheric effect.

Journey’s End is a truly impressive production, taking its audiences on a disturbing and rewarding road towards its powerful destination - one that is well worth travelling down.