The first version of Journey’s End, in 1928, starred an unknown actor named Laurence Olivier.
Staged often since then, it even has a sort of cameo in the cult film about two unemployed thespians, Withnail & I. One of the idle actors escapes poverty and a life of obscurity by bagging the lead role in a touring production of Journey’s End.
Something of a classic, then. But does it deserve its reputation? In short, yes.
The play is about a group of British officers struggling to come to terms with the hardships of trench life during The Great War.
Lieutenant Raleigh, a young and green recruit, has swung a commission to join the trench commanded by his hero, Captain Stanhope. Raleigh knew Stanhope when the latter was a few years ahead of him at public school.
But the senior man is now very changed. Youthful idealism and sobriety are a thing of the past, and Stanhope is cynical, bitter and struggling to suppress his fear and disgust with war.
Raleigh has all that to learn – if he can survive long enough.
The play may have been first staged more than 80 years ago, but its message and understated dramatic power remain fresh and relevant.
It is also subtler than most plays and movies about war that came after – neither screechy nor preachy – and therefore more moving.
Journey’s End doesn’t celebrate heroism, though it shows men acting manfully under extreme duress.
It’s not an outright condemnation of the conflict, either, though it does highlight the futility and horror of war, while never shying away from the carnage.
All the performances in this production are excellent, though special plaudits go to Graham Butler as Raleigh and Christian Patterson as the jovial Trotter. Until Saturday.
Rating * * * *