Journey's End, Richmond Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

On 21 March 1918 around 38,000 British soldiers died in the biggest artillery barrage the Great War had seen. It is the nervous dread suffered (and concealed) by a unit of officers as the seconds ticked toward that onslaught, known beforehand to be "murder", which gives R C Sherriff's sublime play its fascinating heartbeat.

Director David Grindley gives Sherriff's lacerating dialogue, the dugout setting, the noise and terror of the frontline and his characters the right mixture of humour, introspection and distraction.

James Norton as the beleaguered, brutalised Captain Stanhope, an old whisky soak at just 21, is stunning. He's a veteran, the longest-serving officer there, but barely an adult. Terrorising his inferiors over a shortage of pepper one minute and raging drunkenly in fear the next. His distaste for the "worms" who wriggle home with their "Blighty one" injuries is violently exacted on the snivelling Hibbert (Simon Harrison), who claims to be suffering neuralgia.

Raleigh (a brilliant Graham Butler) is 18 and a new recruit. Unblemished by experience and seeing the army as an extension of school, everything is "simply topping!" His keenness is extremely touching. Having followed Stanhope, his school friend and "rugger skipper", to the front, he meets only anger and resentment.

Dominic Mafham as "Uncle" Osborne injects the wisdom of a school master and a score more years into the dugout. He is the voice of reason and support to the unhinged Stanhope, a contrast to the unflinching stoicism of the fat and jolly Trotter (Christian Patterson) and the endearing enthusiasm of Raleigh.

Once criticised for its lack of a leading lady, the play has captured hearts because it is a true portrait of the theatre of war. Excellent performances and a corkscrew of tension, emotion and drama left not a dry eye in the house.

Ends tomorrow (0844 871 7651)