My amateur dramatics group, Adel Players, are performing Journey’s End by R.C.Sheriff this week. The play is set over four days in 1918 in the claustrophobia of a dugout, there we follow the lives, and deaths, of a small section of brave men.
Sheriff served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the First World War, his service lasted ten months, and he wrote Journey’s End as homage to his comrades. He said of the play that writing the dialogue was easy as he just wrote down what people said and the characters came in uninvited. I’m writing a short story at the moment of which I’m following the characters around with a pen and paper writing down what they say and do. It’s satisfying.
With a front row seat, I waited with my family for the play to start well aware of the nerves backstage, the checking, and rechecking of props, the tightening of belts and dusting down of trousers, the reading, and re-reading of scripts, followed by the pacing and silent mouthing of words, and the many keen eyes watching for potential hiccups. The play started with Captain Hardy (Chris Andrews) trying to dry his sock over a candle. Sat there while the audience eventually took their seats and the hubbub died, Chris remained in character the whole time, a feat I have to applaud.
Last year I saw Testament of Youth in London. I admit the main reason for the trip was my favourite actor, Colin Morgan, but soon loved the film in its own right. Also set in the trenches, Testament of Youth saw young men who were well bred and eager to join the much talked about war. They set off, clean uniformed, chatty, laughing, waving, and with no idea of the horror that awaited them. That’s what I saw in 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh (Will Andrews) he was keen as mustard, excited, and gung-ho. The war didn’t take long to break him. Will played the young man who was all chipper on the outside but petrified on the inside beautifully. Talking about broken men, Captain Stanhope (James Willstrop) was as damaged as they come. Three years in the trenches had messed with his mind, he no longer knew who he was anymore, and found solace in a whiskey bottle. Today we call it PTSD, in 1918 one pulled ones socks up and set off into certain death with a tally-ho. James played the tortured soul with perfection, to the extent that sometimes I just couldn’t look at him, his distress was tangible and I certainly didn’t want it.
Interjecting the scenes and offering some light relief was Private Mason (David Pritchard) the company cook. His deadpan delivery of the fact that there were onions in the tea and tea leaves in the soup was priceless. Mason’s concern that he’d failed to obtain pepper for supper was genuine and David played Mason with judged understatement. I wanted to cry at the end when he came out of his kitchen dressed for battle with recognition of his situation on his face.
Matthew Newby played 2nd Lieutenant Hibbert, a frightened man whose desperation to leave the trenches was so palpable, it was weaved into the very fabric of his uniform. When the tensions between Stanhope and Hibbert came to a head and Hibbert breaks down, I stopped breathing. Matthews’s performance of Hibbert’s distress was powerful and commanding. I wanted to watch him but had to wrench my eyes away from the suffering. I’ve seen Matthew in many plays but have never seen him as raw and open as he was in that moment.
The man who appeared to be the calmest amongst the chaos was Lieutenant Osborne (Robert Colbeck) an older and more experienced solider who followed the rules. Rob played Osbourne with an acceptance and stillness of a man who knows his inevitable destiny.
Set in the round with only a table and two beds for furniture Journey’s End is obviously very character driven. One such character is the Colonel played with a brilliant effervescence by Mike Andrews. The Colonel was a larger than life character, loud, boisterous, and backslapping. Mike, born to play the Colonel, chewed him up and spat him out.
Gavin Jones’ study of 2nd Lieutenant Trotter was well observed. Trotter, food obsessed and more than likely not a full basket, added another light note to the proceedings. With his uniform stuffed with a cushion and a fork permanently in his hand Gavin took Trotter and firmly made him his own. Trotter was my favourite character.
Both Chris Andrews and David Lancaster played more than one character, with Chris playing three different people including a captured German solider. David played the Sergeant Major who carries an injured Raleigh down into the dugout. Will looked like a child cast over David’s shoulder and I think that only drove home the fact that the vast majority in World War One were just kids, barely away from their mother’s arms.
The light and sound were the icing on the cake for this production. Without the simulation of flares and the sound of war outside the dugout the play would’ve have been in danger of being lifeless. At the end when the booms, bangs, and flashes escalate and Stanhope walks out towards his certain doom were skilfully done. I have to shout out Robin Peart (Light) and David Newby (Sound).
Throughout the play, I observed the audience; many mouths were agape, many a tear was wiped away, and everybody sat stock-still. They were absorbed, captivated, and transported.
I contributed in a small way to this play, helping with the scenery and publicity, but I’m well aware of the hard work that goes into a performance like this. I take my purple beanie hat off to the cast and crew.
In the car on the way home, my daughter asked a hundred questions: Why did the war start? Was Hitler there? Who was the man who shouted loudly? What happened to the German solider? Why didn’t the men just say no and not go to war? The play had fired her imagination and we tried our best to answer her. Children should learn history through sight, touch, sound, and smell, not words on a whiteboard and a droning teacher.
I may be biased; hell, I am biased, but if you’re ever in the north of England go see an Adel Players play. They really are the cream of the crop.