Set play

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Timothy Ramsden on why Journey's End continues to remain popular

Journey's End

By R C Sherriff

Playhouse, London

Tel: 0870 060 6622

Back in 1928, no one thought a war play would work, but good reviews, plus "wildfire word of mouth", led to Journey's End being given more than 30 productions within a year, says David Grindley, director of the current London revival. Berlin was one of the first cities to see it.

The play's success reflected a mix of first-hand experience and superb dramatic crafting. Strangely, much of the action takes place in quietness.

The officers preserve a public-school atmosphere. Linen and silver are replaced by newspaper and enamel, the frontline dugout has a puddle-strewn floor and condensation-lined walls, but the cook Mason serves food in the old manner.

Stanhope, the key character, keeps his beloved Madge's portrait with him.

She belongs to his old life, to which he wishes to return (but cannot bear to visit during the war, spending his leave instead in Paris). It helps explain his fury when her brother, Raleigh, enters his war-world. Raleigh's fresh-faced presence contrasts with his old school hero, a war veteran three years out of school.

It is March 1918, the date of the Germans' last big attack. Many public-school-educated officers had been killed, allowing the likes of Trotter to come through the ranks. Grindley's production refuses to treat him - or Mason - as patronisingly comic. Trotter may eat his way through the war, but it's a survival strategy, like Stanhope's whisky or Osborne's concern for others.

Stanhope is distinguished by fellow-feeling too. Unlike Hardy, captain of the previous command in this dugout, Stanhope knows everyone by name. He feels for Osborne's death, but also for all the men lost on the pre-battle raiding-party.

Sherriff has "a balanced perspective" on the war. Grindley accepts that some moments approach the critical spirit of Oh, What A Lovely War (opposing armies 70 yards apart, while statesmen fail to find better ways to conduct international affairs, German magnanimity over the recovery of bodies, Stanhope's bitter outburst after the raiding party). Yet his characters always believe the war should be fought, that Germany is the aggressor.

The play refuses to be sentimental, says Grindley. Stanhope's serious talk to Osborne about the forthcoming attack is undercut by Mason's breezy entry with sardines. Occasional words of public school vocabulary - "topping", "frightfully" - seem funny now, but emphasise the characters' youth.

Sherriff's understanding shows too in Hibbert, the officer who fakes sickness. He remains sleazy, with his saucy French postcards, but gains respect, from Stanhope and audiences, after facing the prospect of being shot point-blank. Even cowardice is a coping strategy in extremis.

* London to October 31, also on tour to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Richmond, Plymouth, Salford, Bath, Jersey, Brighton, Wolverhampton, Woking, Milton Keynes, Malvern, Nottingham, Bradford, September 6-December 4

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