‘Journey’s End’ at Milton Keynes

Last week I saw Journey’s End on stage in Milton Keynes, in a production that will be travelling to several other cities.
It was not a perfect production, but the play came through strongly and impressed me more than ever.
I was annoyed at the beginning, by a drop-curtain of Lord Kitchener pointing his famous finger. Not just a WW1 cliché, but an image of 1914 rather than 1918. Maybe the producers thought it was important to give audiences a fail-safe reminder about which war they were watching, though.
The dimly-lit dugout looked authentic enough, the shellfire was loud and the performances were believable. Osborne and Trotter (played by an understudy) I thought particularly strong.
What came across to me while watching was the extent to which this is a play about performance, about men trying to act a role. Two scenes struck me as especially effective. The first was the one where Stanhope talks to Hibbert, trying to persuade him not to evade things by pleading sickness. Stanhope talks to him man to man, and says that he too feels the same fear, and works on the man to change his mind. It all has the appearance of complete sincerity, yet afterwards Stanhope will refer to Hibbert as a ‘worm’. How much should we believe (as Hibbert did) the things that Stanhope said? How much was a deliberate act? We can’t be certain, and that’s one of the things that makes it such a good scene.
The other scene that particularly struck me was when Stanhope, Trotter and Hibbert are drinking before the attack. The production caught very well indeed the forced nature of their jollity, as they pretended to be confident and hid their real feelings.
Osborne and Trotter are both performers, one acting the role of ‘Uncle’, the other of a practical sensualist. This production made one aware of the couple of moments with each of them when the mask slips, and we see the fears they are hiding behind the pose.
The actor playing Raleigh played him very young, very naive. I found his schoolboy tones annoying at first, but then I realised that this was right. He is the enthusiast, the only one not acting. Stanhope can deal with the others, but not this.
As for Stanhope, I thought he got a bit too distraught in the first act, leaving not so much for the last. Would someone quite so obviously fragile have managed to lead his men so well? I’d like to have seen the mask of command kept more intact at the start, with just a few hints about how it would crack.
With the Colonel, too, I’d like to have seen less of the old buffer, and more of a man playing the part of an old buffer, because that was a way of communicating with others. Sherriff had an acute sense of the strangeness and difficulty of the role of soldier (he does not himself seem to have been very successful at maintaining that role) and the great strength of his play is that he shows a range of characters who are all, with varying degrees of success, struggling to maintain a show of manliness in very difficult circumstances. No wonder it resonated so strongly with audiences in 1929, as it reminded ex-soldiers not only of the physical strain they had been under, but of the psychological strain of maintaining appearances.
Forty-odd years ago, Journey’s End looked dated, and Oh What a Lovely War was the thing. Now J.E. looks solid as a rock, while OWALW looks flakey, despite the wonderful songs. Time does strange things to texts.

2 Comments

  1. Peter Cant-Salkowsky
    Posted October 2, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Gary Sheffield in Forgotten Victory, (2001), page 9, suggests that Sherriff did not intend JE to be an ‘anti-war’ or pacifist play and was disappointed to see it so produced. Sheffield thought that the anti-war tone was set by the first producer and this was then copied by subsequent producers. I would be interested to know how the producer at Milton Keynes handled it.

  2. Allan George Cox
    Posted November 19, 2013 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    WE, that is David Jarman, Ian Henderson and I were discussing much the same thing recently at the Garats Hay Dinner.
    Your name came up but we had no idea where you were, how you are, what you are doing or if you even care any more. I think you may be well. We are./Users/allancox/Pictures/iPhoto Library/Previews/2010/14Apr 2010_2/Scan 1.jpeg
    Our kindest regards to you old friend
    George


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