Adrian Hilton

A new ending

“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” lamented Wilfred Owen in his Anthem for Doomed Youth. When RC Sherriff wrote his play Journey’s End just a decade after the Great War, he never set out to answer this haunting question or justify what he had witnessed at Passchendaele. But he was the first to bring the horrors of trench warfare to the stage, and by so doing he spawned a genre that would be satirised and appear a generation later as Oh, What a Lovely War!, and a generation after that as Blackadder Goes Forth. With their “simply topping” humour, “ra-ther” eccentricity, and “thanks most awfully” irony, they serve to remind us of the futility of war: they ensure that we will remember.

The original 1928 production of Journey’s End at the Apollo Theatre not only launched the career of an unknown, 21-year-old actor called Laurence Olivier; it also introduced the world Sherriff, who would go on to write screenplays for such cinema classics as The Invisible Man (1933), Goodbye, Mr Chips (1933, for which he received an Oscar nomination), The Four Feathers (1938), Lady Hamilton (1941) and The Dam Busters (1955). This latest production at the Duke of York’s Theatre is a revival of David Grindley’s 2004 staging and runs only until 3rd September, after which it tours the UK. And I have to tell you, it’s funny, heartbreaking and utterly unmissable.

Grindley’s bunker is an intense, claustrophobic darkness, in which the only constant is the dim flicker of a slow-burning candle on a wooden table, around which the officers spend the first half of the play eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. The smell of bacon lingers, the tea tastes of onions, the cutlets won’t cut, and the soup is yellow and tasteless.

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