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A CurtainUp Review
Journey's End

Journey's End Journey's to Broadway With A Fine American Cast
By Elyse Sommer

Hugh Dancy in Journey's End
Hugh Dancy in Journey's End
How did you feel. . .in the front line?—Osborne
It seemed so frightfully quiet and uncanny, everybody creeping about and talking in low voices. I suppose you've got to talk quietly when you're so near the German front line—only about seventy yards, isn't it? —Raleigh the fresh out of school new recruit.
Yes. about the breadth of a rugger field.—Osborne
It's funny to think of it like that—Raleigh
I always measure distances like that out here. Keeps them in proportion.—Osborne. As the 40-year-old former schoolmaster tries to keep the tedium and stress of war in the trenches of the Western Front, and Captain Stanhope, the twenty-one-year-old commander uses whiskey because he "couldn't bear being fully conscious all the time."

It's evident from the above quoted interchange that R.C. Sherriff's 1929 World War I drama is not an easy to watch, pack-up-your-troubles entertainment. With patriotic young men no longer hunkered down in trenches but nevertheless being killed and maimed in Iraq, Journey's End has become an even more painfully up-to-date old-fashioned drama since Lizzie Loveridge reviewed the 2004 London revival. R. C. Sherriff, who himself was a survivor of the war, may have intended it as a tribute to his brave comrades rather than as an anti-war play, but it is nevertheless a stark reminder of the folly of wars prompted by fuzzy motives with lives often lost as a result of ineffectual leadership.

Director David Grindley, rather than attempting to rival the sort of action scenes that enliven filmed war dramas, has used the limitations of live theater to focus on the character portraits that give Sherriff's play its durability and enable the actors to create a tightly knit, rich ensemble performance. While he was able to bring his original design team to New York, Grindley is now working with an American cast.

Having American actors portray very British characters often diminishes a transfer production's effectiveness. Not so here. These Yanks are superlative stiff-upper lip Brits, their accents as echt as their uniforms (Dialect Coach Majella Hurley deserved being listed on the program's title page as well as in the who's who bios). The lone Brit — Hugh Dancy best known in the U.S. for his screen roles as Essex in Elizabeth I and the title character in the Masterpiece production of Daniel Deronda — makes an impressive Broadway debut as the whiskey swilling, always on edge young Captain Stanhope. I think Dancy is exactly the actor to fulfill Lizzie Loveridge 's wish for a more believably stressed out and charismatic actor to play this role.

While Journey's End, for all the critical praises already heaped upon it, may just be too grimly relevant to find enough of a Broadway audience to sustain a long run, the actors with their names above the title are bound to be contenders for the various major acting awards — Dancy for his tense Stanhope, Boyd Gaines for his masterfully restrained and moving Osborne, and Jefferson Mays for his steadfastly unruffled cook. Also destined for awards is the work of scenic and costume designer Jonathan Fensom, lighting designer Jason Taylor and sound designer Gregory Clarke.

Strikingly claustrophobic as the dugout in which the three days leading up to a devastating offensive is, it has its drawbacks. The sense that this dark and dismal place is lit by just three candles makes it frustatingly difficult for anyone not sitting fairly close to the stage to see any of the actor's facial expressions. Even my Row G aisle seat didn't afford really satisfying closeups. Yet that persistent darkness (except for one morning scene that sends sunlight streaming through the entryway) is an apt metaphor for these men caught up in a war they don't quite understand but for which they are loyally risking their lives.

Most of the action in Journey's End takes place outside of that dugout, with the human drama fleshed out through the way the men interact and deal with the pervasive doom and gloom summed up so hearbreakingly by Stanhope: "D'you ever get a sudden feeling that everything's going farther and farther away till you're the only thing in the world — and then the world begins going away, until you're the only thing in the universe— and you struggle to get back— and can't?"

Like Lizzie Loveridige, I found the final ten minutes of this production the most moving and memorable. And as the curtain call at the end of each part of Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia was special, so, in a different but also riveting way, is seeing the Journey's End ensemble line up against a war memorial inscribed with the names of those for whom the end of the journey came in those life consuming trenches.

Playwright: R.C. Sherriff
Directed by David Grindley
Cast: Hugh Dancy (Capt. Stanhope), Boyd Gaines (Lt. Osborne), Jefferson Mays (Pvt. Mason), Stark Sands (2nd Lt. Raleigh) , John Ahlin (2nd Lt. Trotter), Nick Berg Barnes (Lance Cpl. Broughton), John Behlmann (Pvt. Albert Brown), Justin Blanchard (2nd Lt. Hibbert), Kieran Campion (German Soldier), John Curless (Sgt. Major ) & Richard Poe (Colonel)
Scenic and costume design: Jonathan Fensom
Lights: Jason Taylor
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, includes intermission
Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street 212/239-6200
From 2/08/07; opening 2/22/07
Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM, with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2PM and Sundays at 3PM.
Tickets: $36.25 to $96.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/28 performance
Closing 6/10/07 after 15 previews and 125 regular performances.

Journey's End in London by Lizzie Loveridge

There's not a man left who was here when I came.
--- Stanhope
It is exactly 75 years since Journey's End, RC Sherriff's play about life in the trenches in the First World War was first produced in London. This powerful play, which has been studied by generations of British schoolchildren, celebrates its three-quarter century at the Comedy Theatre in the West End. It endures in the tradition of great drama because until wars are at an end, the human race will continue to question what our reaction should be to the cycle of killing and being killed in the name of foreign policy. Sherriff's play creates real characters, some of whom deal better than others with the stresses of warfare in the trenches, the close proximity of the enemy and the pointlessness and inevitability of dying.

The play had problems in initially finding a backer to take it into the West End because it has no leading lady (in fact, no women at all) and only one set, a dugout near St Quentin in Picardy, France. However excellent notices led to its being very popular. The accompanying programme to this latest revival gives the play's fascinating history and success which led to fourteen companies performing it in English by the end of 1929. James Whale the film director and Laurence Olivier are two famous names associated with Journey's End. Sherriff went on to write the screenplay for HG Wells' The Invisible Man, Goodbye Mr Chips and The Dam Busters.

Most of the characters are from the English middle classes, young officers who played cricket and rugger at school and whose favourite adjective is "topping". The levity of the humour and the stiff upper lip serve to disguise what these men are really feeling. Stanhope (Geoffrey Streatfeild) uses alcohol to cope but is merciless in his treatment of potential deserter Hibbert (Ben Meyjes), despite having some of the same frightened feelings himself.

The play gives a picture of the day to day existence of these British soldiers waiting to go on watch and waiting for the big 1918 German offensive to start. They focus on the mundane like the terrible food and the way the tea tastes of onions. Twenty one year old Captain Stanhope, remarkably, has been at the front for almost three years. Into his company comes eighteen year old Raleigh (Christian Coulson) who knew him at school and who hero worships Stanhope who is engaged to his sister. Raleigh's arrival disturbs Stanhope's separation of home and war. Stanhope's second in command is the forty year old teacher, Lieutenant Osborne, played by the avuncular David Haig. Osborne and Raleigh are selected to front a very dangerous mission from which neither is expected to return.

I very much liked David Haig's linchpin performance as Osborne, the older man, a steadying influence on the other members of the company. I was less impressed by Geoffrey Streatfeild, whose explosive rages are meant to be displays of stress rather than bursts of bad temper. I would have welcomed someone more likely to be twenty one and maybe more charismatic. Stanhope has this conflict of wanting to protect the younger man, but also knowing he must not display favouritism. Christian Coulson is excellent as the new recruit, with enthusiasm before, and despair after coming into first hand contact with the cruelty of war. Ben Meyjes too, convinces as the troubled Hibbert who Stanhope threatens with shooting as a deserter. Paul Bradley's Trotter is laid back and amusing and Phil Cornwell's cook is splendidly adaptable producing food under intolerable conditions.

Jonathan Fensom's set looks authentic, cramped, dark, makeshift with huge girders supporting the dug out structure. Army uniforms are the genuine article.

The final ten minutes of David Grindley's production are the most evocative and will stay with me forever. In the last few moments, the noise of cannon and grenades gets louder and thick smoke enters the collapsing dugout. The curtain is lowered and the audience are left for several minutes in complete darkness, still with the deafening sound of warfare. Then, slowly the curtain raises and, instead of the low ceiling dugout, there is this tall, pale, ghostly war memorial inscribed with the names of the dead from the Great War, which fills the stage area from boards to flies. In front of the litany of names, stand the company, stock still, in military gabardine coats, jodphurs and boots, carrying their gas masks and rifles. It is as if they are a sculpture, a group of men cast in stone, a tribute to those young lives lost. Around me, teenage schoolgirls poured out emotion as they sobbed in distress.

Journey's End
Written by RC Sherriff
Directed by David Grindley

Starring: David Haig, Paul Bradley, Geoffrey Steatfeild, Christian Coulson
With: Guy Williams, Phil Cornwell, Alex Grimwood, Ben Meyjes, Rupert Wickham, Max Berendt, John R Mahoney
Designer: Jonathan Fensom
Lighting Designer: Jason Taylor
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6622
Booking to 1st May 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd January 2004 Performance at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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