DOMINIC MAFHAM

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Sunday 10th April 2011



SOBERING TALE OF A DRUNKEN HERO



The weapons of the war have changed dramatically since 1918 when Journey’s End ***** is set. But nothing can date R.C. Sherriff’s classic, an eloquent celebration of heroism and a heartfelt lament for the waste and idiocies of war.


Moreover, David Grindley’s tremendously tense and atmospheric production, originally staged in the West End in 2004 and now touring nationally (good news for those for whom it’s a GCSE set text), has lost none of its grip and emotional force.


Laurence Olivier muttered that the play was ‘nothing but meals’. There are lots – if tinned pineapple and tea tasting of onion count. But there’s more to this play than food. Olivier played Stanhope a 21-year-old who has been a battalion commander since leaving school, where he captained the rugby team.


In this revival, James Norton draws a devastating portrait of a man on the edge. Only whisky and an upper lip as stiff as a frozen corpse keep his panic at bay. His company adores and respects him regardless. ‘I’d go to hell with him,’ says one soldier, not realising that this is precisely where he is heading.


Fear of a different sort arrives when rosy-cheeked Raleigh (Graham Butler)., a family friend who had hero-worshipped Stanhope at school, joins the company. Stanhope is unofficially engaged to his ‘topping’ sister and all it would take is a letter home to reveal the not-very-pretty picture of Stanhope, drunk from dawn, his nerves shot to blazes.


Set in a stinking, muddy dugout with just the breadth of a rugby field between them and the enemy, and just hours away from a massive raid, the play draws its power from the detail.


Sherriff had seen active service and knew all too well about the long stretches of quiet (‘too damned quiet’) filled with earwig races (‘dip it in whisky, makes ’em go like hell’) inedible cutlets and the tension and terror of waiting.


This cast is first-rate throughout and Dominic Mafham outstanding as the kind level-headed Osborne, a former schoolmaster fondly called Uncle who, tellingly, reads Alice In Wonderland – in which nothing makes sense – during the countdown to the fatal raid. At the end, instead of a curtain call, the cast stand silent in front of a vast memorial with the names of the fallen. Incomparably moving, it makes every performance a Remembrance Day.


You’ll need more that a tot of rum to stem the tears.