It is exactly 75 years since Journey's End had its London premiere at the Savoy Theatre. In the meantime, our understanding of the First World War has been deepened by many patently more sophisticated works of art. But this has not blunted the extraordinary emotional impact of RC Sherriff's play, as is proved again by David Grindley's deeply affecting revival at the Comedy Theatre.
Set in a dug-out near St Quentin just before the last great German offensive, the play has the quiet, unforced moral authority that comes from first-hand experience. Unlike some of the shriller denouncers of the war (O'Casey, Coward), Sheriff had seen active service at the front. Part of the play's power derives from the loving intimacy with which it depicts day-to-day life in the trenches - drawing attention to details like the soldierly distraction of organising earwig races, the long periods of uncanny quiet between bombardments, or the odd bodily reaction of men about to go on a dangerous mission (which is a yawn). And part stems from the reticence of its moral indignation, which slips out in unpursued hints - such as the suggestion that a fatal raid may have been timed for the afternoon so as not to interfere with the dining arrangements at HQ, or the implication that the men fighting the war are kept in greater ignorance of its progress than civilians (one officer ruefully declares that he relies on his wife writing to him about what she's read in the papers).
What makes the play emotionally wrenching, though, is its divided response to romance. George Bernard Shaw thought that Journey's End was "useful as a corrective to the romantic conception of war". In fact, Sherriff's drama is much more ambivalent than that. The fresh-faced new lieutenant Raleigh (beautifully played by Christian Coulson) makes the dismaying discovery that three years at the front have turned his public-school idol, Stanhope, into a nerve-shattered alcoholic. The play manages to be keenly insightful about the awful pressures of being hero-worshipped, while itself hero-worshipping Stanhope.
Geoffrey Streatfield is terrific at projecting the self-hatred that makes Stanhope recoil with such fury from Raleigh, who presents him with an unbearable reminder of his innocent early days. It's arguable that Streatfield is a touch too histrionic. But the excruciating contradictions are incisively registered. It's the public-school ethos that gives Stanhope his sense of duty. And it's that same ethos that makes him send Raleigh out on a fatal raid. The colonel suggests that a more experienced officer from another company might take his place but Stanhope believes it would reflect badly on the honour of his own bunch.
The double-edged nature of the drama is well brought out, too, by Paul Bradley as the likeably down-to-earth, food-obsessed and unflappable working-class lieutenant Trotter. He lets you see depths to the man's decency which tell against the patronising view that he lacks imagination. At the end, the actors do not take a conventional curtain call. Instead they stand silently before a gigantic memorial inscribed with the names of the fallen.
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