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Journey's End: The Oxford Playhouse

11:30am Tuesday 22nd February 2011

The explosions of ordnance and rat-tat-tat of small arms fire that punctuate the compelling, superbly acted production of Journey’s End reach a shattering climax in the final moments of the drama, obliging members of the audience at the Oxford Playhouse to hold their hands to their ears. Director David Grindley and the sound designer Gregory Clarke spare us nothing of “the monstrous anger of the guns”, in Wilfred Owen’s unforgettable phrase.

R.C. Sherriff’s 1929 box office smash — arguably the finest war play since Henry V — is, of course, famous for its depiction of all of the horrors of armed conflict. As an unflinching portrait of life in the trenches, as it was experienced by the writer himself, it is also a celebration of some of the nobler aspects of war, including comradely regard for one’s fellow fighting men.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the character of Lieut Osborne (Dominic Mafham). He is known to all as ‘Uncle’, a name fully revealing of the TLC he lavishes on the company as it prepares to face a bloody German advance on the Western Front in March 1918. A schoolmaster by profession, he is ideally placed to bring comfort to colleagues so lately out of school.

None is more in need of it than his superior, Capt Stanhope (James Norton). The horrors of trench life have bred in him an utter revulsion to war; the devotion to duty that others recognise and respect in him is supplied largely by the whisky bottle rarely out of his hand. Three years earlier, he had been a school sporting hero, idol of 2nd Lieut Raleigh (Graham Butler) who is newly come to the company. Will he see how far his friend has fallen? More importantly, will he report home in letters that might be read by his sister, with whom Stanhope is in love?

All the characters in the play are brilliantly drawn, their special characteristics clearly delineated by the actors under Grindley, whose gripping, heart-breaking production played to packed houses in the West End six years ago.

We admire the unflappability of the cheery glutton Trotter (Christian Patterson), an officer promoted from the ranks; we sympathise with the terrors of the upper-crust Hibbert (Simon Harrison) who is feigning illness in a bid for home; we laugh at some of the culinary horrors (onion flavoured tea, anyone?) appearing from the kitchen of Private Mason (Tony Turner).

Yes, there is laughter in war — something Raleigh fails to understand until it is pointed out by Stanhope in one of his terrible, plausible drunken outbursts that are every bit as horrifying as the roar of the guns.