Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 22, 2007
Journey's End by R.C. Sherriff. Directed by David Grindley. Scenic and costume design by Jonathan Fensom. Lighting design by Jason Taylor. Sound design by Gregory Clarke. Cast: Hugh Dancy, Boyd Gaines, Jefferson Mays; featuring John Ahlin, Nick Berg Barnes, John Behlmann, Justin Blanchard, Kieran Campion, John Curless, Richard Poe, and Stark Sands as Raleigh. Originally produced in London by Background Productions.
Devastation takes many forms, some tangible but most otherwise, in the revival of Journey's End that just opened at the Belasco, although nothing that's destroyed compares to what's created. In David Grindley's excellent production of R.C. Sherriff's 1929 play, the numerous explosions grimly heralding the turning of the tide of World War I are mere firecrackers. It's the cataclysmic blasts of heart-rending humanity onstage that unveil in the ugliness of war something of sublime beauty.
However, rarely is something this beautiful this difficult to watch. Though the setting is a British dugout in the trenches near St. Quentin, France, Journey's End really takes place at the intersection of a dozen personal hells. Under Grindley's direction, this production makes you feel each and every one as though your own future - to say nothing of your life - hangs in the balance. That this bloody chronicle of the March, 1918, days preceding Operation Michael, the first part of the German army's Spring Offensive, never depresses but consistently uplifts and inspires is itself a kind of miracle.
That's also what will forever guarantee this play an unusual spot in history, and what makes it an unexpected entrant in our current spate of war-themed theatre. Journey's End is not, as it's commonly considered, a repudiation of war or violence in general. The play begrudgingly admits that, for better or worse, it's part of the human condition, and that the real story doesn't lie in questioning whether it's good or bad, but seeing how people cope with its inevitability.
None of these men know what we do, that they're fighting on the thresholds of history - they're simply trying to hang onto what they have. But in wartime, Sherriff argues, that's not possible. As evidence, he presents Captain Dennis Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), a 21-year-old who's shot through the ranks in his three years in the services and has become dependent on drink to ease the pain of the frontlines he sees through his ongoing tours of duty. The girl he's seeing back home would never understand, he insists, but he does what he has to do in a place where survival is antithetical to existence.
The arrival to the troop of one of Stanhope's schoolmates, Second Lieutenant Jimmy Raleigh (Stark Sands), only sparks Stanhope's fears that he'll be revealed in the real world for what he is on the field of battle. For his part, Raleigh has long admired Stanhope, and is thrilled for the opportunity to serve with a friend he so deeply respects; even Raleigh doesn't see Stanhope the way Stanhope sees himself.
Identity of any sort, it soon turns out, is never a given: Lieutenant Osborne (Boyd Gaines) is an aging gentleman and unofficial father to the younger men, though he's particularly close to Stanhope. Second Lieutenant Trotter (John Ahlin) is as distinctly lower-class in voice, manner, and interests as he is portly, but holds a position of importance within the group that commands respect he'd otherwise likely not be due. Private Mason (Jefferson Mays) is another outsider among the soldiers, but as the cook is responsible for nourishing them (and as the show's blisteringly dry comic relief, he refuels their souls as well). The youthful and able Second Lieutenant Hibbert (Justin Blanchard) is so terrified at the thought of combat, he'll fake a disease to avoid it.
It's this conflicting expectations of all the men, toward themselves and each other, that drives the play; Grindley and his performers expertly capture that, as well as a winning atmosphere of camaraderie between them all. You feel, as you must, that these men are making the best of the worst situation they can imagine. Scenes with the potential to feel hoary burst with immediacy and intensity - Stanhope's thwarting Hibbert's desertion attempt resonates with desperation from both men, while a brief glimpse of a captured German soldier (Kieran Campion) harrowingly proves the enemy can be just as scared as we are. It's how all these characters and the men playing them fit into the larger story of courage against overwhelming odds that gives this play and production its uncommon power.
Gaines, well known for playing lighter roles (often in musicals), brings so much serious, avuncular weight to Osborne that when he must resignedly prepare for a mission he has no reason to believe he'll survive, the impending sense of loss is almost unbearable. Raleigh, also part of that same mission, is forced to grow up far too soon; Sands presents that crucial transition with an amiable care, and the man he becomes by play's end is every bit the admirable extension of the boy he is earlier on. But everyone is wonderful, with Ahlin and Mays warmly funny and Blanchard a picture of justified cowardice.
As Stanhope, Dancy's a model of fractured perfection; he understands that it's only through loss and pain can Stanhope become the man everyone already believes he is. Dancy anchors the play with authority, bringing to its dramatic center the same gritty realism that Jonathan Fensom does to the set and costumes, Jason Taylor does to the lights, and Gregory Clarke does to the appropriately off-putting sound. Dancy doesn't want for the anguish, uncertainty, or resolve just right for the confused leader who's a follower at heart.
What's missing from his performance - and from the rest of this production - is sentimentality. And the play is infinitely richer for its absence. Examined coolly, if never dispassionately, it becomes a document of true bravery at the time it was most needed, a testament to men who gave their lives for a cause they might not have completely understood, but which they knew was bigger than they were, and might well have been worth sacrificing their lives.
This is not, then, any kind of an antiwar play - neither Sherriff nor Grindley takes any perceptible stand on the rightness or the wrongness of war. Their goal, instead, is to pay tribute to those who live and sometimes die to secure the promise of freedom for their fellow men and women. In so doing, they've ensured that every moment of Journey's End - right through the must-see curtain call - is just as important as it is riveting.
Photo 1: Hugh Dancy