Conflict little more than a beastly affair

Journey's End, Octagon Theatre, Bolton.
Journey's End, Octagon Theatre, Bolton.

The mud and blood-splattered trenches of the First World War may seem like the last place to go looking for evidence of man’s humanity, but this enduringly-remarkable play continues to prove otherwise.

Amidst all the current commemorations it still stands apart as an example of living history from that time.

Although not actually written in the heat of battle, it was penned so soon afterwards – by one of its young officer combatants – that authenticity is beyond doubt.

Its author R.C. Sherriff said he simply had to write down what people said, while his characters walked in “without invitation”.

And it’s the very language of the play that tends to be the ‘star’ of this timely revival.

The clipped tones of the officer class, or the sentimental musings of lower ranks, have since been parodied many times but as spoken here they have the effect of listening to an accurate aural record.

Men facing certain death seem only able to describe war as “silly” or a “nuisance”. A “beastly affair” is about as livid as they can get.

And the absence of pepper from the officers’ mess table is of more concern than the enemy’s next big push.

In the young officer roles of Stanhope and Raleigh, director David Thacker has cast two actors who appropriately enough look not long out of high school let alone drama college.

James Dutton and Tristan Brooke convey, respectively, the nearly broken spirit of the battle-hardened and the almost puppyish excitement of a new recruit.

David Birrell is excellent as a ramrod-straight older officer.

An actual fog of war hangs over designer James Cotterill’s subterranean setting and there is forensic detailing in how soldiers prepare for the occasion, whether that’s going to their death...or to dinner.

Journey’s End continues until October 4.