Journey’s End By R C Sherriff Directed by Tony Casement Mercury Theatre, Colchester Playing until Saturday 3 May

R C Sherriff wrote his play about life in a dug-out during the drawn-out trench warfare of the First World War at the half-way point towards an even more ferocious conflict. I suspect that, for the teenagers in the audience, 1939 and 1914 must seem as remote as Caesar or Napoleon. But the play holds the stage – and the audience’s attention – when given a naturalistic a production, such as this one by Tony Casement contained within an equally authentic setting designed by Sara Perks. When we come into the theatre, the dug-out serving as officers’ quarters is in front of us, with an ominously streaked sky above it and the dull thuds of mortar fire in the distance. The use of Satie’s “Gymnopèdies” to introduce the action subtly suggests the terrible surrealism of this type of total conflict (the enemy being largely unseen) as it impacts on natural behaviour. We are in a real world with real people but not perhaps in the real world outside. One thing which is very clever about Casement’s production is the straightforward approach to each of the seven principal characters; there is no attempt to elaborate a back-story for any of them or to caricature early 20th century social roles and assumptions. It makes for complete conviction by the audience. It’s a little like classical Greek tragedy. We know that the inevitable will occur, but can discount it until it actually happens. The three main characters are the young company commander Stanhope, his older second-in-command Osborne and the young subaltern Raleigh. Gus Gallagher gives Stanhope natural authority and makes no attempt to play for sympathy as he drinks to blot out the horrors of the immediate past, though never enough to impair him for duty. Raleigh is an ex-public schoolboy full of enthusiasm but reluctant to accept that war in the trenches is not the glorious gung-ho activity about which he’s read. David Oakes makes him puppy-like but also paces his slow ascent to understanding and reality with a conviction which makes his fate seem worse than that of his comrades. Roger Delves-Broughton as the former schoolmaster Osborne lets us see why the small group of officers like, trust and depend on him. It’s a finely nuanced performance, always quiet but never fading. It contrasts well with that by Tim Treslove as Trotter, unabashed by his promotion from the ranks and quite prepared to enjoy the perks of his new rank

while equally ready to do his proper duty. Among the other characters, Michael Thomson as the mess servant Mason, Victor Gardener as the company sergeant-major and Adrian Stokes as the colonel who know an impossible mission when he has to order one are particularly good. Tim Freeman plays Hardy, the officer on his way to a well-earned furlough, and Stephen Cavanagh is Hibbert, who hasn’t earned his at all. Some of the absolute authenticity of this production is due to the military historical consultant Taff Gillingham, an expert on 20th century soldiering and war conditions. Colchester is itself a garrison town, as it has been since Roman times. It’s appropriate that this fine staging of a good play happens where it does. The Mercury Theatre, after all, perches above the wall built as a result of Boudicca’s revolt in AD 61. Reviewed by Anne Morley-Priestman for Theatre World Internet Magazine

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