IF you were to pick out two plays that evoke the First World War, in all its horror, carnage, courage, tragedy and inhuman scale, they would be Oh What A Lovely War and Journey’s End. To see these two masterpieces in the space of five days is shattering.
Sturminster Newton Amateur Dramatic Society has chosen RC Sherriff’s powerful, tragic drama for its spring show, and it is probably the finest production I have seen (in nearly 30 years) by this long-established company.
It is not that every individual performance is brilliant – although there are no weak links – rather that the ensemble, under the effective direction of John Skinner, captures with eerie precision that sense of inertia, frustration and explosive tension of a mismatched group of soldiers waiting for a big offensive.
Oh What A Lovely War satirises the callous incompetence, petty jealousies, misunderstandings and arrogance of the leaders (on both sides, but particularly in the British high command).
Journey’s End looks the other way down the barrel of the gun – at the young officers, the burnt out older officers, the raw recruits and the NCOs, all doing their best to stay alive and to follow orders, even though they know that those orders will lead to almost certain death.
The setting is an officers’ dugout on the Western Front, a few days before the start of a major German offensive. The senior officer is Captain Stanhope (Alan Morris), principled, brave and humane, but very close to total burn-out; his closest friend Osborne (William Peat), junior officers Trotter (Adrian Harding) and Hibbert (Trevor Puckett, never better as the shell-shocked wide boy) and newly arrived Raleigh (Richard Jones, a study in boyish bravado and despair), whose sister is informally engaged to Stanhope.
The cast is completed by Mason the cook (Joel Warner), the Colonel (Tony Harrison), the company Sergeant Major (Charles Snell, who also plays a cynical officer in the opening scene), George Lipop as a runner and Tom Lipop as a young German soldier.
The role of Stanhope is pivotal and his contrasting relationships with Osborne and Raleigh form the backbone of the play. These were brilliantly explored – the older Osborne, known as Uncle by the other officers, the archetypal steady pair of hands, and the hero-struck young Raleigh, thrilled to be in Stanhope’s company, so naive it breaks your heart.
The play unravels slowly, the early scenes capturing the stressful boredom of the unseen trenches above and the dugout below, where the officers pass their time in drinking and playing silly games – such as racing earwigs!
As the date and time of the German offensive become clear, and the never-seen Brigadier sends down the order for a dusk raid, there is an inexorable ramping up of pace and tension.
The final sequence should be shattering. It was. One of those rare moments when silence is the right response and the audience holds its breath before the applause begins.