“That was a damn plucky sparrow. Did you hear it chirping away, all through the final artillery bombardment?”
Recent findings, reported in The Journal of Rhetorical Geology, suggest that the best seams of theatrical pathos (the awakening of emotion) are to be found in the scarred and sacred landscape of the Great War. There pathos in its purest form can be located, under layer upon layer of cultural sediment laid down by successive generations struggling to comprehend the bloodshed.
Extracting pathos is relatively simple. Pop down to Armstrongs, buy a few green jackets, then sit around on stage acting out various combinations of maudlin, keen, world-weary and surprisingly chipper. Refining said pathos, into something worthy of the sacrifice of the young men who actually lived and suffered through the realities of trench warfare is, however a much taller order.
We enter to find one of the best sets ever seen at Bedlam. The officers’ dugout is constructed of little more than canvas and suggestion. Somehow it’s both claustrophobic and snugly, a shelter against Gerry’s wizzbangs, a petri dish for festering resentments. Here a mixed cast will achieve mixed results unraveling the social nuance and dark humour of R. C. Sherriff’s classic script.
Based on the writer’s own experience as a Captain on the Western Front, Journey’s End has been revised time and again. It first opened in 1928, starring Laurence Olivier as Stanhope, the company commander stretched passed the limits of mental and physical endurance. It’s the story of men living among the wreckage of their youth, uncertain of their future, certain that nothing can be as it was before.
EUTC’s Ben Schofield steps confidently into the breech focusing his fire on Stanhope’s relationship with the recently posted 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh, a greenhorn from his pre-war past. Tom Trower captures Raleigh’s hero worship of Stanhope without neglecting his own dramatic narrative. A fine bromance disintegrates before our eyes. It’s the one theme signed, sealed, and delivered enough to satisfy even the most finickity marker of an English Lit paper.
Ross Baillie as Osbourne, Stanhope’s second in command, brings Jovian gravity to the picture. His coupling of calm self-possession to undertones of physical menace are reminiscent of those Scottish Green Party political broadcasts featuring The Hound from Game of Thrones. Alex Andrassy provides equally strong character work, catching the comic value of Private Mason, the Baldrickian mess cook, with a bittersweet distillation of timing and physicality.
Jari Fowkes, as Lt. Trotter, bowls the social googly. Trotter isn’t one of the chaps, he’s come up through the ranks. Despite baiting the hook with almost every non-RP middle-class accent variation from the Thames estuary to West Yorkshire, none of the other actors bite and a trick is missed. Ciara Chapman, as the unaccountably poshest Sergeant-Major in British military history, underscores a glaring oversight – yes, the play is set in France, but it’s about a changing Britain.
There are moments when this production is utterly captivating, the acting sharp, the discipline, focus and effort obvious. Equally there are times – such as when a sparrow continues to sing through the final bombardment (rather than poignantly waiting for peace to break out like how John Lloyd had it) – that you find yourself wishing for something informed by more than Blackadder Goes Forth. You start to wish that this had been a production referencing more broadly the artistic expression, across every medium, which the Western Front continues to inspire.
Then the ending reveal happens, the set transforms, and it’s magnificent.
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 5 February)