In the run up to Armistice Day, Sinclair Productions take us down to the trenches once more for an “intense reworking” of R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End. It is the story of Raleigh, a new recruit fresh out of public school and “rugger” games, who follows his schoolboy hero into the officers’ dugout. Yet as he discovers that Stanhope has become another victim of this war of attrition, director Sam Bell needs to work hard to make this production stand out from swathes of First World War literature we’ve all become so desensitised to – to the conclusions we can already predict.
There are moments which really work. Ironically whilst Sherriff’s play was originally rejected by theatre managers because it lacked a leading lady, this production finally offers us one. Casting a woman in the role of the young and vulnerable Raleigh might seem an easy way of emphasising the gulf that lies between this wet-behind-the-ears recruit, eager to prove himself a man, and the weathered Stanhope, but Rebecca Moore brings much more than this to the part. In a final scene which risks becoming either static or melodramatic, it is Moore’s humble yet somehow enthralling presence which draws us in. Her portrayal of a boy on the cusp of manhood, clutching at life even as he realises it’s slipping away, brings a quiet sense of understated tragedy to the climax of the play, and when her sudden cry of pain rips through the silent tension, you can’t help wincing along with Stanhope.
Yet the final moments are churned out with a haste that undermines the poignancy Moore has worked so carefully to build. Rather than make full use of the silence which follows, the remaining characters seem in a rush to leave the stage. This is the problem with Sam Bell’s production of Journey’s End: it seems interested only in the dramatic interchanges between characters. Admittedly, as Hibbert and Stanhope clash against one another in a dispute which leaves them exactly where they started – trapped in the trenches – the dialogue echoes the barrage above ground which so haunt the men below. But what it doesn’t capture is the excruciating boredom, the mundane everyday life and suffering, the tortuous waiting to go up the ladder which Sherriff’s original script so starkly evokes. The scenes I saw were more First World War soap opera than “powerful and touching” reworking: actors are only on stage long enough to shout, cry and make up before they are whisked away and the next drama begins. The almost constant intensity of tone and pace becomes desensitising at times, and similarly there was a lack of movement in the scenes I saw. Rather than restrained, these characters seem static and complacent in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the dugout. A little more use of the stage might have helped to make us more aware of the stifling confinement which so frustrates them.
Yet with more than a week to go these are problems which can easily be ironed out, and the acting itself is there. At times Alex Fisher and Benedict Nicholson work beautifully in opposition to one another – watching Nicholson’s tortured, twitching Hibbert collide against Fisher’s granite figure in one scene, you really feel his sense impotence and frustration. It’s just that these sort of high-intensity exchanges need to be balanced with an emphasis on the pauses, silences, and more understated moments of dialogue which are already there in the script. We need to understand the agonizing lack of event or drama, constant repression and tension which are the cause of these outbursts. If this can be done, you’ll find a genuinely moving piece of theatre at the O’Reilly next week, one which will certainly put your 5th Week Blues into perspective.