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REVIEW: Journey's End

Journey's End by R.C. Sherriff

3rd-6th September 2014 | Charles Cryer Theatre

Journey's End is not an easy show to get right.

This classic drama set in the British trenches near St. Quentin in the last months of the First World War, presents many challenges to those who choose to tell its story. It's controversial unveiling just a few years after the end of the conflict caused much consternation amongst the British public at the time who felt the Great War was to be respected; not conveyed in a negative light.

It portrays a group of Military Officers who struggle to come to terms with the tragedies and hardships of battle; Death. Love. Fear. Addiction. All themes that flew in the face of the brave British War effort that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

 It presents a stern challenge to any theatrical enterprise who decide to take it on. It's a slow burning story where a minute really feel like a minute, just like it did at the time. Characters unfold over the whole show. The situation evolves as do the players in it. Performing this piece justice requires subtlety, commitment and attention to detail. Thankfully, these requirements were not just met, they were exceeded and them some.

Director Chris Malone has delivered a theatrical experience quite unlike any other on this particular local circuit. I say a theatrical experience, as once inside the Charles Cryer, one genuinely felt like being transported back to another era. From the old war effort songs singing solemnly through the dimly lit trench, to the stench of damp and cold. The mist. The claustrophobia. The story was told with humility and a deep understanding of the piece. Every element of this production was delivered with utter conviction, which made it so rewarding to watch.

We were met with the outgoing 'Captain Hardy' drying his socks on a candle, this cheerful officer played solidly by Sam Brown. His performance, whilst brief was very believable, the part being played with a slight arrogance but likeable brightness which I felt quite refreshing. Sam gets better with each passing show.

He was joined shortly after by 'Lieutenant Osborne', known as "Uncle" to the others. A father-figure, and battle-hardened officer, he is the crutch that many of the officers lean on in times of need. This part was played by the eminently-watchable Andy Lingfield. Never overdoing anything, he judged all of what he did extremely well. His timing was a joy to behold, bringing authority and dynamism to a part which can verge on fusty when done badly. This was never the case with Lingfield's beautiful portrayal of an utterly loveable character. Bravo.

Captain Hardy is relieved by 'Stanhope', the incoming commanding officer of the company. A once happy fellow who has been ravaged by war. Now a tortured soul, he relies on the whiskey to get him through each day. Steadily topping up his glass, he remains a character on the brink throughout the story. He confides his fears to Osborne, ever the sympathetic ear. Stanhope was superbly played by Michael Leopold: he can be truly proud of this performance. His simmering anger, to his brotherly love for Osborne and the authority with which he held himself; he commanded complete attention from everyone in the audience, myself included. Equally impressive was that it came from someone so young. Stanhope was portrayed with such lovely detail and conviction, Michael must surely stand up and take a bow. It's well deserved, and he goes from strength to strength.

Joining Stanhope was 'Raleigh', the youthful and naive officer, brother to Stanhope's love back home. Stanhope fears Raleigh will write home telling his sister what he has become: a cynical, pessimistic, drunkard of a man. This blast from Stanhope's past starts the chain of events that lead to the unravelling of the whole company.

Raleigh was played by Jonathan Ford in a wonderfully weighted performance. From his timing to his lovely expressions, Jonathan looked completely immersed in the world he was in. He conveyed his feelings of fear, hero-worship toward Stanhope, and respect to Osborne so very well. Jonathan had lovely poise and remains incredibly difficult to take ones eyes away from. His concentration remained from the first to the last scene. His scene with Stanhope at the end of the play easily ranks as one of the best things I've seen on a stage this year, reducing a sold out theatre to tears and stunned silence. I cannot begin to tell you how difficult that is to pull off. Well done Jonathan and Michael.

 These three protagonists were supported ably by a supremely believable cast of officers, 'Tommies' and commanders.

'Trotter', the happy-go-lucky comic relief of the group, was played wonderfully by Olly Reeves. His timing was exemplary; So often actors rattle through the dialogue like its something to get past, but Olly showed the depth of his talents not just by his delivery of words, but also by his delivery of silence. His withering glances, his physical mannerisms, the way he set the pace of his scenes was quite magnificent. Testament to this was the ability to make the audience laugh one second, then bring them crashing down the next. His pathos made all the more powerful by his excellent judgement of humour.

'Hibbert' was played adroitly by Laurent Zhubi, a very talented actor that I hope to see more of in the future. He played a frightened young officer struggling with the misery of war. His pleas to Stanhope to be sent home through the eye condition neuralgia falling on deaf ears. His breakdown in the second act was committed to and utterly believable. We all truly felt his pain.

'Mason' was played by the loveable Graeme Long who would duck in and out with meals and drinks prepared in his offstage pantry. His simple demeanour and charming working class appeal made his interjections in various scenes so very enjoyable. You truly got to like Mason, who would chip in little comedy gems throughout the piece, and he felt like a little slice of home. Him being sent up into the line near the end of the play felt all the more sad for it. A really thoughtful and sensitive performance from Graeme here. Excellent stuff. His meals, which were eaten on stage, were a truly unique thing to see in a theatre and a very memorable part of this show. As to how good the food tasted, I couldn't possibly comment!

Rounding off the cast were lovely performances from Chris Brown who played the brusque but cowardly 'Colonel', sending the men to their deaths over and over again. His awkwardness on stage was felt so keenly, and I loved his refusal to make eye contact with the other officers. Of all the people on stage, his was the part that felt most like a 'character' but this never was a problem for anyone in the audience, and always stayed on the right side of the deli counter.

Nick Mead played 'Broughton', the soldier and signaller. He played it with poise and sensitivity. His look of despair and sadness at events unfolding before him was wonderful to watch. Mead continues to grow as an actor.

Finally, Ed Thomson who brings authority to his role as the company 'Sergeant Major'. His delivery was clear and his focus was apparent throughout. All his work on stage was delivered with clarity and very good concentration. A thoroughly decent turn, sir.

 There was a star of the show which would not have had a biography in the programme and that would be the set. It was dark, atmospheric and superbly designed. Its rare to see something so 'professional' in an 'amateur' production, giving the play an almost filmic quality. Testament to this was seeing the audience spill onto the stage in the interval, desperate to explore every nook and cranny. A glance at the table revealed a treasure trove of maps and papers and oddments, all completely authentic. I cannot understate the level of detail that must have been put into this and special mention must to go the team for achieving it so thoroughly well. The sound design throughout the piece was also expertly delivered by John Sutherland, creating the atmosphere of the front line with series of frightening soundtracks that underpinned the action perfectly.

YOUtheatre have delivered and exceeded expectations raised by last year's successful run of Alan Bennett's 'The History Boys'. They continue to thrive and deserve their reputation as one of the outstanding groups in the area. I have been blessed by two brilliant shows from them in the last 12 months and I look forward to seeing what they do next. I tip my peak cap to you all. Sterling work.

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