David Grindley's 2007 production of Journey's End was an award-winning hit both here and on Broadway; currently on a UK tour it's stopping off for the summer in a return to the West End. R.C. Sheriff's 1920s drama seems, to me, to be a hugely influential piece as the archetype of how we view the First World War - controversial at first, the picture it gives of life in the trenches is the one that's endured in drama to this day. Raleigh (Graham Butler) has just arrived and, thanks to an uncle in a position of influence, is serving under his sister's boyfriend, and his own schoolboy idol, Captain Stanhope (James Norton.) Stanhope himself is less than pleased to see Raleigh, not wanting the people at home to find out that he's become an alcoholic as the only way of coping with life at the Front. As well as these two, Dominic Mafham as "uncle" Lt Osborne, Christian Patterson as overweight joker Trotter and Simon Harrison as Hibbert, desperately trying to escape to a hospital, carry most of the action, but the whole cast is strong. Jonathan Fensom's set aims for a realistically claustrophobic feel by occupying just a tiny portion of the stage and while there's no music Gregory Clarke's sound design contributes sparingly but effectively, especially in one nightmarishly loud sequence. This being the trenches it's not a brightly lit production but unlike the National's current A Woman Killed With Kindness, Jason Taylor has here given the effect of a murky underground bunker without making it difficult on the audience's eyes. I don't feel as if I have a huge amount to say about this as the themes the play explores have subsequently become familiar in other dramas about WWI, except to say that if there is such a thing as a definitive story about life in the trenches (from the officers' point of view, in any case,) this play and this production, alternately moving, frightening and filled with gallows humour, is it.
Journey's End by R.C. Sheriff is booking until the 3rd of September at the Duke of York's Theatre and continues on tour.