For its return to the West End – to the somehow entirely suitable environs of the compact New Ambassadors theatre – a fresh new cast has been employed featuring a number of actors just out of drama school. And though it doesn’t always quite hit the heights of the previous casting, everyone involved acquits themselves admirably.
The fact that, for several of the younger members of the cast, this is their professional theatre debut has a certain poetic appropriateness to it. This is especially true of Tom Payne as the optimistic and alarmingly youthful Raleigh, a schoolboy in military uniform, still full of talk of the rugger field. When he first arrives in the dugout, it’s difficult not to think of the words of Wilfred Owen; Doomed Youth and all that.
Having said that, the character of the conflicted Captain Stanhope is meant to be only a few years older than Raleigh, a fact that is successfully conveyed by newcomer Ben Righton. Whiskey-driven and emotionally disintegrating yet dedicated to his men and to following his orders, Stanhope is a complex character and Righton captures both his courage and his flashes of anger and uncertainty. It’s a strong and subtle performance.
Stage veteran Michael Siberry makes a very solid job of the role of the paternal Lieutenant Osborne, the officer the others fondly refer to as Uncle. But Jake Harders does rather overplay the pitiful and snivelling Hibbert, so petrified of life on the front line that he pleads to be given sick leave. To be fair, Sherriff’s play can’t quite hide its contempt for this character. Fear is allowed; giving in to it is not.
Though the play itself remains depressingly relevant, certain aspects of Journey’s End have inevitably dated and there’s much unintentional humour to be had from the language, which exudes a very stiff-upper-lipped Englishness that is as appealing as it is alien to our ears: everything is “awfully” this, “frightfully” that, or “simply topping.” Gregory Clarke’s sound design suffers from no such baggage, building to a crescendo after the curtain falls that leaves the audience raw and rattled.
Journey’s End works so well because it is, first and foremost, an engaging drama. The play may contain a few swipes at the incompetence and indifference of the higher ranks and the odd nod to the fact that, for everything they go through, these men are officers and life for the enlisted men must have been even harder, but it is the sheer futility of war, and the hell of battle, that Sherriff really targets with his writing. At one point Raleigh, after being told about an honourable act by their German counterparts, says genuinely: “This all seems rather silly, doesn’t it?” And the answer can only be yes.