On yet another Wednesday evening, I found myself battling the elements towards the Barron Theatre to see Mermaids’ latest offering. This particular night, it was a take on the popular play “Journey’s End” by R. C. Sheriff, which premiered starring a young Laurence Olivier 90 years ago. Having loved the 2017 film adaptation of the play, I was eager to experience the dialogue as it was intended: the movie itself couldn’t escape the fact that the script was meant for a stage and not a film set (though I still thoroughly recommend it – Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield and Sam Claflin in one movie is more than we deserve, to be frank).
Performed as one of eight productions during the Mermaids Freshers Drama Festival, “Journey’s End” allowed its small cast to undertake the obligatory foray into war drama that awaits all (male) actors. Set in an officers’ dugout on the French frontlines of the First World War, the play explores the psychological effects of war and its tragic senselessness. Charlie Flynn’s directorial effort understandably cut down the length of the play, but still gave most of its characters the development they deserved.
Flynn himself took on the role of young Raleigh, who arrives young, gung-ho and fresh out of training to take his place under his childhood friend, Stanhope. Flynn captured Raleigh’s inherent naivety well, as well as its inevitable disintegration into shell-shocked trauma. Sam Gray had the unenviable task of portraying the play’s most charismatic character, an older solider fondly known as “Uncle”. Lanky and weary, slouching into his armchair with a pipe and book in hand, he immediately conveyed Uncle’s wisdom and experience. His low voice was accordingly controlled and measured, if at times too quiet to hear. He stood as a calm antithesis to the constant anger of Stanhope (Joe Torkington), the officer-in-charge and Raleigh’s aforementioned childhood friend. Torkington’s imposing frame, shrouded in an impressively authentic-looking coat, dominated the space.
Charles Vivian’s Hibbert was perhaps an insight into what Stanhope once was – just beginning to feel the strain of terror, to be pushed to the edge by the fear provoked by the noises and smells of trench-life. Harry Ledgerwood provided a comedic alternative – and a regional one, with his familiar Scottish tones – in Trotter, with an easy charm while still showing a man trying to find the light in a pretty dark situation. Finally, Mason was portrayed by Yazmin Taylor. Why the role was made female doesn’t matter: she was delightfully funny and homely, providing easy comedic relief in an otherwise bleak play.
The performances were all consistent and well-defined – every character was identifiable by their traits, be it resignation, trauma, humour or inexperience. Perhaps too consistent, however – Uncle was perpetually melancholic; Stanhope perpetually irate. The joy of having a script that’s concentrated in one space and built on character dynamics is the opportunity to find the character’s lapses: where do they let their guard down? When should their true dispositions be revealed? For example, giving Uncle some points of apparent levity or optimism may have then highlighted his hopelessness later on; similarly, allowing Stanhope more moments of genuine vulnerability may have humanised him slightly. Every play I’ve reviewed thus far has featured an inexplicably angry man, and they have been, for the most part, a bit tiring to watch. Anger is exhausting; too much of any one emotion is – for audiences as much as it is for actors.
That’s not to take away from the performances given. Cutting scenes (which I am only assuming they did, going by the hour run-time) was always going to make it harder to develop characters fully, so all in all the performers did very well with what they had. They were helped by the selection of period music which evoked the world of 1918, whilst the naturalistic set, costume and lighting all combined to transport us to the bleak and dreary reality of the trench. Ending with a rendition of the “Last Post” was a nice touch, if a bit abrupt: it added poignancy in a very simple manner that certainly would have resonated particularly with British audience members familiar with the tune.
So, this production of “Journey’s End” ticked all the boxes for a classic war drama with committed performances of terrorised soldiers and a naturalistic approach to design. It didn’t make any ground-breaking moves or revolutionise the genre, but it didn’t really set out to. If it was an indication of what this year’s haul of thespian freshers has to offer, then I’m optimistic. Hopefully this Freshers Festival has given creators the confidence to go forth and start taking risks in future productions, and I for one am looking forward to seeing what those risks are.