The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham have put on R C Sheriff’s play Journey’s End to mark the 90th anniversary of the Armistice. Although it’s now a GCSE set text, I had never read it, and was looking forward to seeing a play I’d heard much about; it didn’t disappoint. The play, first performed in 1928, is set in an officers’ dug-out near to the front-line in France during the First World War; the small stage of the Crescent studio was ideally suited to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the setting, and the set itself was elaborately perfect in its details of trench life. The play concentrates on the effect of life in the trenches on men, many of them very young, under enormous strain. Often history seems to concentrate on the ghastly conditions of trench life for the privates – the water, mud, poor food and constant danger; here, the conditions are better (the characters being officers) but the psychological strain of leading men into hell is expressed subtly but unmistakeably.
Journey’s End concentrates on a few men, including Stanhope, a “hero” of 20 or 21 who is known as an excellent leader, but who can only face the daily struggle with large amounts of whiskey, and who demonstrates a violent temper; Raleigh, a young recruit straight from school, who revered Stanhope and arrives ecstatic to be serving under him; and Osborne, an older man who attempts, in his own courageous way, to help Stanhope to bear his burdens. The frustration and boredom of the trenches as well as the dangers are evident here, but most of all it is the mental strain and the human conflict within the trenches which is primarily of interest. In 1928 it must have been eye-opening for those whose men had returned shell-shocked and mentally, if not physically, shattered from the war. However, although this is often described as an anti-war play, it seems to me more resignedly accepting of the battlegrounds in life: the “bigger issues”, the political aspects of war, even its futility, are secondary to the day-to-day living of life, stoical “getting on with it”.
I was really impressed with this production: the characters were convincing and sympathetic; the emotions seemed genuine, and by the explosive and somewhat shocking ending I found myself almost moved to tears. This is probably one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.