It was strange returning to the Duke of York’s Theatre, my last visit here was for the terrifying Ghost Stories, for which the theatre had been elaborately decorated with duct tape and hazard warning signs. This month it plays host to R.C. Sheriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ returning to the West End for only fifty-five performances before embarking on a National Tour.
It is a devastating story, based on the author’s own experiences of life in the trenches. A brave young group of officers face the tragedy and terror of the Great War with courage and humour. We are invited to watch this compelling homage and to remember the men that sacrificed so much for their country. I was first struck by how instantly absorbing this script is. Sheriff writes in such a natural but exciting way - conversations that might first appear mundane are utterly enthralling. There is also a degree of poignant realism: he understands and knows the pain these men endure.
The play is brilliantly executed thanks to the powerful vision of director David Grindley; he draws on the smallest subtleties and nuances in the script to create an intense piece of drama. It helps that the all male cast are faultless, presenting themselves with such conviction that it is painfully moving from start to finish. Graham Butler is exquisite as the young hero worshipper, Raleigh. He is the newest and youngest addition to the company arriving with an insatiable energy. His commanding officer Captain Stanhope is quite the opposite, despite only being three years older he is bitter and hardened by his time at war. He no longer wishes to remember his schoolyard friendship with Raleigh, challenging the younger boy harshly. James Norton gives a mesmerising performance as the bullying Stanhope, despite the ugly character traits, he manages to show a sensitive side occasionally that makes this character remarkably human.
Designer Jonathan Fensom has created a simple but effective set that really draws you into the action. Only using half the height of the stage, it is a claustrophobic dirty trench, equipped with only the meagre necessities. There are no scene changes and yet somehow the play remains thrilling throughout - perhaps it is the close proximity that keeps it exciting. The curtain call sees the men silhouetted against a list of fallen heroes - it is a tragic contrast to the cramped trench setting.
Despite being written in the 1920s Sheriff’s account of the First World War experience remains a profound, touching and undated memoir.
Journey's End continues until 3 Septmeber, book tickets here.