David Thacker’s autumn season opener may be an obvious choice of play to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, but the production employs every inch of the Octagon’s in-the-round, tiered layout to give RC Sherriff’s classic trench tragedy, based on his own nerve-jangling frontline experiences, a new and riveting immediacy.
By providing a vulture’s eye view of piles of sandbags, wire mesh, corrugated roofing, inclined timber frames and worn duckboards, James Cotterill’s clever design transforms a deep dugout into a terrifyingly claustrophobic mole hole in the ground. It’s a viewpoint that gives the unnerving impression that Sherriff’s group of officers, waiting for the Germans to launch their last great offensive at St Quentin in 1918, will either survive in this earthly safety nest or could be wiped out by a shell or swallowed up in mud any second.
With thick pipe and cigar smoke enveloping everything and everyone in a fug of war, Richard G Jones’ low-key lighting design evokes the khaki gloominess of a candle-lit troglodyte existence – where group solidarity is encouraged and terror is defused with nice cups of tea, jam sandwiches and large slugs of whisky. The ever-present dangers and indescribable horrors outside are contrasted with the remembered safety of the people and places at home in Blighty, that these former civilians may never see again.
Like Coward, Rattigan and Pinter, Sherriff knew how to contain emotional turmoil behind a brittle upper lip stiffness. But although the ensemble cast respond well to the challenge of acting beneath the text, there are some key scenes that could do with a bit more churning dramatic tension and a stronger sense of internal terror being camouflaged by everyday chit-chat.
Nevertheless, the bonding relationships between the officers are keenly observed, especially Tristan Brooke as fresh-faced new recruit Raleigh – a jaunty innocent abroad who thinks everything is “topping” – and James Dutton as his older public school hero, Stanhope, who has already survived one of the war’s bloodiest battles but now relies on an alcoholic haze to face day after day of horrors and disguise his utter hatred for a pointless conflict.
Ciaran Kellgren is both moving and pathetic as young officer Hibbert – a perfect public school “little worm” – teetering on the edge of giving in to abject cowardice. David Birrell provides a reassuring presence as the stolid mentor-cum-father figure, Osborne. There are nice character studies too from John Branwell as an old school hard-nosed Colonel, who looks like a Boer War survivor, Richard Graham as the lower class Trotter and Michael Shelford as an ever-loyal officer’s batman delivering a nice line in cockney banter and an endless supply of hot tea before everyone is engulfed by the horrors of battle.
- Octagon Theatre, Bolton
- September 4-October 4, PN September 8
- Author: RC Sherriff
- Director: David Thacker
- Design: James Cotterill set, costume, Ged Mayo, Imogen Peers scenic artists, Richard G Jones lighting, Andy Smith sound
- Technical: June West Associates casting, Lesley Hutchison movement, associate director, Terry King fight director, Alyson Woodhouse assistant director, placement, Sophia Horrocks stage manager
- Cast includes: David Birrell, Tristan Brooke, James Dutton, Richard Graham, Ciaran Kellgren, Michael Shelford
- Producer: Octagon Theatre Bolton
- Running time: 2hrs 45mins