“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.