Journey’s End, the little-known, anti-war drama by English playwright R.C. Sherriff, written in 1928 and set in the First World War, was performed by the talented Rhetoric year from 22-24 November 2012 and proved to be a powerful and affecting evening’s entertainment. From the opening strains of the poignant piano accompaniment on arrival into the Sports Hall, the audience was transported to the wartime trenches in this evocative piece of drama.
The young cast, playing characters of a variety of ages and from different backgrounds in this well selected, all-male play, captured the essence of trench life and the pointlessness of war, depicting the desperation, boredom and fear of a group of soldiers, facing possible death at any moment and trying to distract themselves with alcohol and idle chatter on any subject from London theatre to philandering days with former lovers.
The main message of this powerful piece of theatre is the absurd futility of war – the tragic and unnecessary loss of life, and potential lives. This message is most cleverly reflected by Osbourne when quoting passages from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: the ultimate absurdity. The climax of the play – the ‘journey’s end’ of the title – was heartbreaking, and packed a potent punch.
The production was extremely well cast, with each character bringing their own personal interpretation to their role. Raleigh (Daniel O’Sullivan) was a natural as the enthusiastic newcomer to the ranks, whose awakening to the realities and atrocities of war is central to the unfolding story, as he becomes visibly disillusioned following the death of his mentor, Osbourne. Raleigh’s naïve bravery as he dies before the audience was most affecting.
Likewise, Hibbert (Stephen Broe) was most believable as the sullen, brooding coward, feigning illness to escape the horrors to be faced in the trenches. The play’s tensions were lightened somewhat by the performance of Conor Ledingham as Trotter, whose obviously fake paunch was an instant source of amusement. With good comic timing Ledingham was our only soldier with a regional accent – which worked very well.
The two lead roles were those of Osbourne, the calm, sensible, middle-aged officer, and Stanhope, the passionate young hero of the piece. These two lead actors shone on the stage. Tom Goodman as Osbourne gave a perfectly-timed, quietly confident performance that was crucial to the success of the play. News of his sad and wasteful death comes at the point when the action turns, and the chaos that has been brewing in the tense and crowded living quarters explodes into action.
This explosion is created by Oscar Hassett in the lead role of the much-flawed but inspirational 21-year-old commanding officer, Stanhope. Hassett inhabited the role, from his arresting physical bearing and authoritative vocal abilities, to drunken giddiness and the tender scenes with the dying Raleigh. Stanhope was a fully realized character, a rare achievement in a performance from one so young. However I’m not so sure that the British army would have allowed such a stylish haircut in the trenches…
Those in supporting roles were all strong. I especially liked Mason (Mark Rehill), whose believable deference to his superior officers was deftly portrayed. Fionn Lynch, Fiachna Quinn, Gearoid Kennedy, Aengus Cunningham, and Naoise McHugh (as the German soldier), were all well played, with fine projection and comic timing. A variation in the officers’ facial hair so that not all of them were moustachioed might have worked well but this is a minor criticism.
This was truly an excellent production, expertly directed by Tom Carroll. The performances were well balanced, the English accents worked well, sound effects were authentic and the set was marvellous – I especially liked the use of sandbags packed out to the edges of the stage area, almost drawing the audience into the action. On the odd occasion when lines seemed to go astray it was refreshing to not hear a prompt being used. Most of the main action took place in one spot – seated at the table in the centre of the stage – and utilizing the front stage space may have worked well to vary the audience’s sight lines and view of the main protagonists.
However, this is no place for criticism as the overall production was a triumph. I know all too well the hours of dedicated preparation that go into producing such quality theatre and congratulate the director, the set designer, the lighting technician and sound effect operator, the cast and all the crew on such a moving, compelling and skillfully-acted production.
Ms Maria O’Donovan.
Maria O’Donovan is the Editor of Cork University Press. She designed and produced The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, which won the Best Irish Published Book of the Year in 2012. Maria has considerable theatrical experience, directing, producing and devising many productions, as well as acting in a range of roles, in community theatre.