Review – Journey’s End, Duke of York’s Theatre

Thursday 28 July 2011

“Do you think you would have turned to drink?” Andrew enquired of Phil at the interval of Journey’s End. Which led to the Whingers musing on the pros and cons of life in the World War I trenches.

It did seem grim: the food, the cold, the damp, the rats, the exhaustion, the boredom, the constant fear of bombardment or action and never returning to blighty. But Phil”s imagination was conjuring up terrible images far more chilling than anything portrayed on the stage: the bathroom arrangements.

On the plus side, there was the booze. Who knew? There was an apparently almost never-ending supply of whisky with occasional bottles of champagne. There’s no doubt about it, in the vain assumption that our jibs would have been cut from officerial material, we would definitely have been stretchered out; no chance of the Whingers going over the top (There’s a first).

Then there is the effectively crepuscular lighting (Jason Taylor) which Phil saw as another plus, candlelight being his lighting of choice. But although it is very flattering, it’s quite challenging to watch for a theatre audience. Thankfully the Whingers were seated quite near the front. Goodness knows what it looks like from the back of the Duke of York’s Theatre. Forget the Maltesers, the theatre should be selling packs of carrot sticks.

What the Whingers hadn’t expected though was how well crafted R. C. Sherriff‘s 1928 play turned out to be. After the initial slow burn (although nothing to burn our retinas which were slowly adjusting), it’s a fascinating glimpse of trench life seen from the officers’ dugout over four days in spring 1918 featuring a well-balanced selection of types: the jolly, the disturbed, the seasoned, the less brave and the new officers and privates coping with life a rugby pitch’s width away from the front line. Neatly switching between the boredom of waiting (how do earthworms know which way is up?), the comedy and the horror of war Journey’s End slowly builds a compelling story of characters you really care about.

The cast of unknowns (to us; we imagine their friends and partners know them) are so utterly convincing it seems almost unfair to single out James Norton‘s* Stanhope, Graham Butler‘s Raleigh (pronounced Rawleigh), Christian Patterson‘s Trotter and Dominic Mafham‘s Lieutenant Osborne. Osborne is rather amusingly known to his fellow trenchees as “Uncle”, a moniker the Whingers usually only use in the context of theatre-going bachelors of a certain age accompanied by bright young male consorts. Andrew oft turns to Phil at the theatre pointing out “Ooo look, there’s so-and-so with his nephew” and claims that he sees people pointing at Phil and saying much the same thing.

During this late offensive 25,000 soldiers were killed on each side and Sherriff displays a rather gratifying and surprising sympathy for the “Bosch”.

But even more importantly we’ve also discovered another new drinking salute to add to Flare Path‘s satisfying “tinkerty tonk”: “Cheer-oh!”.

So little to whinge about although had we know about the three hour running time beforehand we might have been more trepidatious. The website only admits to a very specific 2hrs 46m and the programme is thrillingly cavalier with its “approximately 2hrs 40m”. You would think they would know by now since David Grindley‘s production has been knocking about since 2004. This revival, of that revival, has been touring since March (and tours again when this West End residency ends).

But we didn’t mind a jot. The play was so thoroughly engrossing that Phil completely forgot about his glass of wine, only to rediscover it nestling in his groin at the rather unique curtain call. Yet another first. Job done. Both Whingers admitted to being rather moved and discovered fluid running down their cheeks. Where did that come from? Never happend before. The DoY’s theatre must have sprung a leak.

Highly recommended but sit near the front or bring your own carrots.


* Sadly not the same James Norton who is the No 1 Neil Diamond tribute in the UK.

The programme tells the story of the genesis of Journey’s End‘s first production (which starred Laurence Olivier for it’s initial and brief 1928 try-out). The fascinating and unusual genesis of the play then directed by legendary (1931) Frankenstein director James Whale sounds as if it would make an interesting film in itself.


10 Responses to “Review – Journey’s End, Duke of York’s Theatre”

  1. sandown Says:

    R.C. Sherriff gives a detailed account of the genesis of the play, and of its first production, in his autobiography “No Leading Lady” (1968).

    I do not know if the Programme Note for this production has been emended, but originally it stated wrongly that Sherriff himself had served in the particular battle with which the play concludes. In fact he had been invalided out of the army by then, but the regiment in which he had fought (the East Surreys) were in the front line when the German assault began. The regiment and its casualties are listed in the war-memorial scene, with which this production ends.

    Every member of the play’s original audience would have known the significance of the battle itself, which the Germans called the “Kaiserschlacht”, and the British called the March Retreat. Although shattered, dispersed and driven back for nine days, the British Fifth Army held on, and eventually brought the German offensive to a halt some twenty miles from Amiens. If the Germans had broken through, they would have won the war.

  2. Dumb Dave Says:

    So it’s 3hrs long is it? Exactly 3hrs, bit below, bit more?

  3. A Wellwisher Says:

    Wonderful review. Although, I believe Mr Patterson is concerned about being called Christopher and not Christian. He is an angry man (though enjoyed the review greatly) and he may scratch faces.

  4. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    Sincere apologies. Please direct him to his biog in the programme (black type printed on dark grey) which was read in the crepuscular candlelight preferred by the Whingers since the three-day weeks and power cuts of the 70s.
    You’re far too young to remember.

  5. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    And duly corrected for Mr Christian.

  6. Max Says:

    Lighting from rear of DoY theatre: dim, but very effective. Specs handy but non-essential. Loved this show.

    Thought: Journey’s End has been the most famous play about WWI for eighty years. Does it still hold its primary position in the light of the worldwide success of War Horse? I rather think it does, although I adored War Horse, but should be interested to know of other opinions.

  7. Giancarlo Stampalia Says:

    Journey’s End is in a different realm to War Horse, and I wouldn’t be too concerned about top-ten lists. Both shows are eccelent each in its own way.
    Saw Journey’s End twice (the same day), once from the fourth row, once from relatively far back in the stalls. Much more effective up front. It’s an intimate play that relies much on nuances and facial expressions of the wonderful cast (Norton and Mafham were revelations for me). The problem for me at the back was not seeing, but hearing properly. Most of the dialogue is low-key and understated, and the acoustics of the small venue far from perfect. Up front, you can catch every throwaway snicker, cough and mumble that the actors enrich their performances with. And that crescendo of blasts that closes the work really blows you away from that vantage point. What a show! As the marquee quotes: Unforgettable.
    Giancarlo from Trieste

  8. jamie greeff Says:

    hello my name is jamie greeff and im a poodle and a nerd.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: