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Journey’s End : the title of R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 World War I drama leaves no room for happy endings and yet despite the weighty topic the play is not depressing, due to the generous peppering of comedy and focus on camaraderie giving it the air of All Quiet on the Western Front with a touch of Blackadder. Since its opening Journey’s end has become the definitive Great war play (its only real competitor being Oh What a Lovely War!) offering a frank, realistic insight into trench life far away from the lyrical musings of Owen, Sassoon and the like.

That the play still has resonance today is obvious, it is a Monday night and the Oxford Playhouse is packed with people old and young. The curtain rises on the interior of a dugout, a window through which we watch the last six days of a group of officers before the big German offensive of the morning of March 21 1918. Plot wise it could be said that nothing much really happens, we watch the officers go through their daily routine, eating, smoking drinking, going out on watch duty, giving us an idea of the repetitiveness and mundanity of trench life. Nor are there great long  theatrical monologues giving us insight into their lives what we learn we learn through their interactions with each other.

Sherriff has been criticized for focusing exclusively on the officer class but his characters aren’t all toffs, but incredibly diverse with the promoted private and gardening enthusiast Trotter and the kindly older schoolmaster Osbourne to set off the typical public school figures of Raleigh and Stanhope who were moved straight from the Rugger pitch to the front line. One of the most important aspects of the play is the camaraderie between these very different men, which it depicts effectively without venturing too deep into sentimentality. Generally the cast all give solid performances; James Norton especially does a ‘topping’ job as the troubled, heavy drinking Captain Stanhope, a role originally played by Lawrence Olivier and therefore surely intimidating for any young actor. Dominic Mafham has great presence as the fatherly figure of Lieutenant Osborne, Graham  Butler captures the nervous excitement of the ‘fresh blood’ Raleigh nicely and Turner and Patterson give much needed comic relief as Trotter and Mason. The production in general is well put together, in a very simple classical style without any experimental streaks involving fancy video projections or physical theatre which conserves the realism of the piece, however I think it might be more effective in a smaller venue like the Old Fire Station or the Burton Taylor Studio so we could really feel the claustrophobia of the trenches.

Winston Churchill admired Journey’s end as a piece of living history and that is exactly what it is: a snapshot into the past, a few hours in the lives of a few men among thousands.

One Comment »

  1. Anna Brunton said:
    This was a profound and moving experience. Despite knowing the inevitable ending: inevitable as it is set in the first World War, the ending is unbearable and heart-breaking. Raleigh is of the age of any Oxford undergraduate. The waste of young lives seems impossible to comprehend.
    Even the final curtain-call becomes part of the play’s message.