Poignant, emotionally charged play

Journey's End: R.C. Sheriff, Mercury Theatre, Colchester until May 3The Mercury Theatre audience whistled, cheered and clapped through its tears at this fine, emotionally charged, homegrown production of the RC Sheriff Great War classic.

Ivan Howlett

Journey's End: R.C. Sheriff, Mercury Theatre, Colchester until May 3

THE Mercury Theatre audience whistled, cheered and clapped through its tears at this fine, emotionally charged, homegrown production of the RC Sheriff Great War classic.

Eighty years ago theatre impresarios hesitated to take a risk on the play. Perhaps they thought people had heard enough about the trenches; that the pain was too close. Sheriff had difficulty in getting it staged.

Now, audiences can't get enough of Journey's End. In the last four years the play's been a revival hit in London, on Broadway and has toured the UK to great acclaim. It may be the play's simple story telling and the poignant clashes of character attract us. It may also be that the piece has assumed a new relevance at a time when Britain is again deeply embroiled in foreign conflicts.

The play follows life in an officers' trench dugout in the three days running up to the major German offensive of March 1918. The death and destruction all happens off-stage and out of sight. Death is up the steps that lead to the duckboards, the revetments and beyond.

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Through the characters Sheriff assembled we meet cowardice and shell shock, alcohol driven bravado, hero worship, class division and camaraderie. Meanwhile, futile military objectives underscore the shameful futility of a war in which schoolboys, weeks after leaving, end up facing certain death at the Front.

The designs and technicals are exceptionally good. Sarah Perks's plank-lined dugout set is low, claustrophobic and full of interesting detail. Hansjorg Schmidt's lighting and Marcus Christiansen's sound design augment the hellish trench atmosphere. We even get fried bacon smells as Hardy (a comic Tim Freeman) brings in the officers' breakfast.

Tony Casement's production hasn't a weakness. In a strong ensemble cast the key characters are, first, Gus Gallagher's Stanhope (the part originally taken by the 21 year-old Laurence Olivier). He's the brilliant young commander now only kept going by whisky. Then there's the innocent Raleigh (David Oakes) who can't see beyond the adventure war seems to promise.

Thirdly, there's the older figure, Osborne (perceptively played by Roger Delves-Broughton) calmly aware that he is living his last eight minutes.

Admittedly there's a stiff upper lip feel to it, and the atrocity, rape and pillage aspects of war aren't on Sheriff's agenda.

But this is a powerful naturalistic drama that moves the heart.

Ivan Howlett

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