Age can barely wither RC Sherriff’s closely observed 1928 drama – in part perhaps because the subject of men at war will never go out of fashion. But if the play is able to transcend its historical moment, it also feels utterly rooted in the mud, fear and, yes, boredom of life in a World War I trench in 1918, a play thick with the stench of lived-in experience (Sherriff served in France from 1915 to 1918). David Grindley’s perfectly detailed, near faultless revival, first staged in London in 2004 (it also picked up a Tony on Broadway), is now being performed again ahead of a U.K. tour.
Suitably for a play Sherriff initially wanted to call Suspense, the four officers under Captain Stanhope are playing a waiting game; they have six days to go until they are recalled down the line (with Christian Patterson’s jovial, corpulent Trotter marking every hour that passes on a handmade grid) and just two dawns to go until an expected German raid. (The raid, Operation Michael, would lay waste to 38,000 men in a single day.)
New to the trench is 18-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh (Graham Butler), just out of public school with an overflowing tap of wide-eyed, unburnished excitement. War for him is almost an extension of the playing field, with the thrill of taking on the Germans "simply topping," as though it was a game of rugger. (As he and Dominic Mafham’s genial, fatherly schoolteacher Osborne discuss their roles in an upcoming raid, Raleigh’s absurdly ebullient innocence is poignantly counterpointed by Osborne’s silent, inwardly quaking acceptance that both are unlikely to survive). Raleigh is also overcome to have wound up in the same company as his schoolboy hero Stanhope – in James Norton’s outstanding performance a clearly tremendous young man who, after three years in France, is now also irascible and paranoid, his shattered nerves glued together with whisky.
For almost two hours Journey’s End doesn’t do much. Instead it captures, in designer Jonathan Femson’s cramped, candlelit trench (and in lovely, fruity, old fashioned dialogue) the banality and occasional poetry of everyday talk, even while the Germans sit only 100 yards away – "the length of a rugger pitch" – presumably doing much the same. The tea tastes of onions; outside the night is ominously quiet. Beneath the gallows humour, tension is rearing up, however. The terror felt by Simon Harrison’s Hibbert has manifested itself as neuralgia and he wants to go home; Stanhope’s almost psychotic refusal to let him is clearly born from his own fear of revealing that he knows exactly how he feels.
Sherriff’s play doesn’t take a political view on the war – although it is piercing on the top brass’s expedient view of their soldiers as dispensable canon fodder. Instead, with an inexorable stealth, it moves ever more resolutely towards a finale that is both tremendously powerful and desperately sad. Grindley’s production is possessed of a quiet, steely dignity, and while he is careful not to sensationalise, it is impossible to leave this play without feeling newly shocked at the terrible waste of men, and awed at their decency and courage.