The splendid Watermill Theatre, near Newbury, has revived one of the greatest war plays every written, Journey’s End, to commemorate the First World War centenary. Originally written in 1928 by R C Sherriff to raise funds for his village rowing club, the play was such a success that it was made into a film in 1930. It was based on Sherriff’s personal experiences in the trenches, where he was severely injured at Passchendaele, and as you might expect it’s largely about how men cope in the face of almost certain death. So then, courage and cowardice, heroism, trench life, social class, community and comradeship are the themes of the play. Sherriff also makes the audience question the decisions made by those at the top. It's not quite as damning as the 'lions led by donkeys' myth, but getting there.
The intimate Watermill Theatre is ideal for the brilliantly designed setting, which is an officers’ dug-out near the front line. We quickly meet the newly arrived Second Lieutenant Raleigh, a keen young officer initially pleased to be under the command of his old friend Captain Stanhope, a boyhood hero. But Stanhope is a changed man, for after three years of constant fear and futility and the deaths of many close comrades he is dependent on his whiskey and prone to bad-tempered outbursts.
Other characters in the dug-out include Stanhope’s second-in-command, Osborne, a much older and avuncular figure, the comfort-eating Trotter, also middle-aged but of lower social class and who colours in circles to count off the days left in the current tour, and the malingerer Hibbert, a young misogynist suffering from real or imagined neuralgia. This sort of set up has been much imitated since, not least by a Blackadder TV series.
Once the personalities of the officers have been established, the action centres on a proposed raid into enemy territory in a dangerous attempt to capture a German soldier to question about the next German big push, but all that’s really secondary to the nervy interplay of the characters that makes this play so riveting.
The all-male cast is a very strong one and it would be unfair of me to pick out any individual for special praise. In fact, everyone associated with this excellent production can feel justly proud of their achievement, a fitting tribute to the real heroes of that dreadful war.
Journey’s End continues at the Watermill Theatre until 11th October.