An intimate but eloquent study of men compelled to fight a pointless war while heroically doing the decent thing, David Grindley’s deeply moving revival of RC Sherriff’s Great War classic has the makings of a theatrical legend.
Graham Butler (2nd Lieutenant Raleigh), Dominic Mafham (Lieutenant Osborne) and James Norton (Captain Stanhope) in Journey's End at the Duke of York's Theatre, London. Photo: Geraint Lewis
His production opened at the Comedy Theatre in January 2004, then continued playing at other West End venues in parallel with the first of three major UK tours.
On Broadway in 2007, it garnered a Tony award plus six nominations. Now (halfway through a nationwide tour of 25 cities) it returns to the West End for a summer season, with plans being laid for a 2012 international tour.
Set in a candlelit officers’ dugout on the Somme in March 1918, Sherriff’s play accepts war as something to be got through, except when a hazardous raid across no-man’s-land is timed for daylight so as not to interfere with the brigadier’s dinner.
Leading the cast is tall personable James Norton, a recent RADA graduate, playing the company commander Stanhope, still with a blush of public school arrogance but drowning his nerves and self-disgust in whisky. His most telling scenes include fraught encounters with Graham Butler’s hero-worshipping Raleigh and Tim Chipping’s sturdy Sergeant Major on the eve of battle.
Dominic Mafham gives a fine, centred performance as the mature, pipe-smoking Osborne, while lively, welcome support comes from Christian Patterson as a bluff Cockney officer.
But unique to Grindley’s concept, the evening ends with a devastating tableau as the eleven-strong cast of actors stand like bronze statues, backed by a memorial roll-call of the British fallen, before doffing their steel helmets to acknowledge audience acclaim.