“I love that fellow. I’d go to hell with him”.
Set in the trenches of the First World War in March 1918, R.C. Sherriff’s play presents us with a tale of loyalty, courage and camaraderie. We follow four days in the lives of five officers awaiting an imminent attack in their intensely claustrophobic dugout, and we are able to gain insight into the thoughts and experiences bonding these men together in such uniquely horrifying circumstances.
The play’s marketing, led by Imogen Howarth, claims that the piece will break the “reverie”: the complacency that a modern audience may feel towards the events of the First World War. Exactly 100 years on, this it most certainly does. The knowledge that the cast are almost all the same age as the characters they are playing is deeply unsettling: men who are now all able to study in comfort at university would have been in a profoundly different predicament a century ago, a fact which is exacerbated by the moving tribute to Oxford’s fallen added to the end of the play.
Agnes Pethers’ expert direction moves fluidly between hope and despair as we watch each man attempt to cope and to find some sense of normality, and there is tangible tension throughout as we wonder when the next attack might happen. The set design too was instrumental in transforming the sizeable St Mary Magdalen’s Church into a squalid, suffocating dugout; however, the lack of raised seating was a logistical issue as much of the action took place sat down, and so the back rows struggled to see some of what was going on.
Performances were excellent across the board, with Joe Stanton’s Osborne coming across as level-headed and eminently likeable, a warmly comedic Mason portrayed by Alex Marks, and Charlie Wellings bringing us a Colonel who was sufficiently slimy and uncaring about those beneath him. The stand-out performances for me, however, were those of Albert McIntosh as Stanhope and Joe Woodman as Raleigh: the contrast between Raleigh’s youthful exuberance and Stanhope’s weariness really brought home the effect of trench warfare on young men such as these, and the tragic final scene between these characters left much of the audience in tears.
Overall, the team behind this production have taken every possible step to memorialise both Sherriff’s play and our fallen soldiers as faithfully and respectfully as possible – with a historical consultant, support of four charities (three of which are directly to do with the Armed Forces), and of course ten stellar performances. Journey’s End runs at St Mary Magdalen’s Church until Sunday 11th November, a fitting date. It is, without doubt, well worth seeing.