Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Power without the glory

Journey's End

Sutton Arts Theatre


THE powerful anti-war message of R C Sherriff’s play comes not from principled pleadings but from its matter of factness, the ordinary, mundane routine of officer life in the trenches, waiting for whatever fate, the generals . . . and the Germans . . . decided.

Sherriff, who was awarded the Military Cross, never set out to write an anti-war drama, there is no moralising, no preaching, no long speeches about the futility of war; he just tells it like it was, based upon his experiences as a captain serving at Vimy, Loos and Passchendaele, where, incidentally, he was badly wounded.

And Sutton Arts pay homage to that realism with an exceptional set, designed by Mark Nattrass, representing a plank-lined, dingy officer’s dugout somewhere near Saint-Quentin in Picardy in 1918 towards the end of the Great War. The grimy, miserable existence is emphasised by minimal, dim lighting and flickering candle light.

Into that half-lit world, down the steps from the trenches above, comes Captain Stanhope who has arrived with his officers and men for a six day stint at the front.

Stanhope’s nerves are shot. He has spent three years on the front lines, refusing his due leave, and he is only held together by a mix of copious amounts of whiskey and an overriding sense of duty. It is a remarkable performance by Robert Newton who shows us a man on the edge, a hair’s breadth from compassion or aggression, or a descent into madness,  at the drop of a tin hat.


The glue holding it all together is his second in command, Lieutenant Osborne, a schoolmaster in another life, played in another excellent performance by Alan Lowe.

Osborne in the play and Lowe on stage steadies the ship. He is Stanhope' rock, the one constant he relies on. There is a moving moment as Osborne, heading out on a dangerous raid, slowly and carefully places a letter to his wife, his watch, ring and personal items on the table, so they “won’t get lost” he tells young 2nd Lt Raleigh, played confidently by Jon Flood.

It is almost as if Osborne knows what is about to happen on the raid to capture a German soldier for information, but still calmly and quietly carries on.

Raleigh, three years younger than Stanhope, and a pupil at the same public school, has been selected for the raid despite having only just left school, having seen no action, and with only two days on the front line.

He has wangled his way into Stanhope’s company through high-up family connections and looks up to him, but he is resented by Stanhope, who is in a relationship with Raleigh’s sister and does not want her to know about his drinking and shot nerves.  

Raleigh has been selected for the raid by the Colonel, played with an unbendable efficiency by Dan Payne, because the other two officers in the company are deemed unsuitable. Trotter is “too fat” and Hibbert is a gibbering wreck.

Trotter, played in a delightful carefree manner by Stuart Goodwin, is a sort of Norman Stanley Fletcher character. A working class officer promoted from the ranks, who loves his food, even what passes as such in the trenches, and like a bottle in the sea, he bobs along with whatever comes next. Make the best of it until you can go home seems to be his motto. His six days at the front are 144 circles on a piece of paper, one for each hour, which he fills in as time drags on.


Hibbert, skilfully played by Tom Frater, is scared to the point he would rather be shot as a deserter than rejoin the front line, faking debilitating neuralgia in a futile attempt to be sent back down the line. His confrontation with Stanhope tells us much about both men and the pressure officers were under.

There is good support from Payne, again, as Captain Hardy, handing over to Stanhope at the start and moving out as fast as he can,  from Dave Douglas as the Sgt Major and George Wyton as a very frightened German Soldier, and, in a sort of each-way bet on the outcome, also as Lance Corporal Broughton.

Meanwhile providing tea – with a hint of onion from the dirty pan - lumpy porridge, bacon with no more than a promise of lean and meat cutlets of uncertain origin, is Private Mason, played by set designer Mark Nattrass, who not only has to wake officers up for their shifts during the night, cook all the meals and make tea on a regular basis, but, having done tea and sandwiches for the officers on the dawn of the big German offensive, has to don his tin hat and rifle and join the troops defending the front line trench, with orders to pop back later to the dugout to prepare lunch! His first chance of sleep appeared to be Armistice Day, 1918.

Lighting, bright enough to see through the gloom, up and down as candles were lit or extinguished, was well designed by David Ashton and Richard Pardoe-Williams; particularly effective were the occasional flashes of distant explosions seen reflected in the entrance to the dugout. They were also responsible for the sound including the cacophony at the end as the German offensive started in earnest.


The offensive, Operation Michael, which opened with 3,500,000 shells fired around Saint Quentin in five hours on March 21, 1918, was designed to seize the Channel Ports and with them the British supply lines and throw the British Expeditionary Force back into the sea. Its failure exhausted German reserves and five months later, with the Second Battle of the Somme, the end of the war was in sight.

Emily Armstrong has done a strong job as director not letting emotional outbursts, or indeed emotions, get out of control and keeping the characters and play in context. Journey’s End is about two fairly ordinary, typical days along what was an insignificant stretch of trench in a four year war. She brings out the monotony, Stanhope’s mood swings, and, amid it all, the humour, particularly from Trotter.

Armstrong also made clever use a full stage scrim with opening images of  newsreel film of recruits off to war and men in the trenches, which worked well, and a final scroll of names of war dead from the battle, which worked less so, in a sombre ending with the cast of nine lined up behind.

The scroll does need to be smoothed out and slowed down as a jerky rapid ascent meant names could not be read or even made out at all which in turn meant the intended poignant effect was lost.

A mention for the prompt as well – much of the time they are unsung heroes but, we all know, they are sometimes needed – and she did a good job when required. It is all too easy for prompts to whisper off stage in the hope the audience won’t notice, leaving actors floundering. Whoever it was made it quick, loud enough to be clearly heard, meaning we got on with the show with minimum fuss or delay.

This is a admirable production of a play which, 84 year’s old this year, has the authenticity of being written by someone who was there. It is a fitting tribute to mark the centenary of the commencement of the First World War but beyond that it is well worth seeing as a notable drama in its own right. To 06-09-14

Roger Clarke


The play that almost never was


And opening a second front

AMONG the myriad events marking the centenary of the start of the First World War, Sutton Arts Theatre chose R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End as their offering.

Written in 1928, some fourteen years after the event, Sherriff originally struggled to find a theatre to stage it. Fortunately a letter of endorsement by George Bernard Shaw ensured its first night at the Apollo theatre, with a young Laurence Olivier taking the lead role of Captain Stanhope.

The production then ran at the Savoy Theatre in the West End for two years.

The single set, an officers' mess in a dug out, is convincingly created by John Islip and his team, dank claustrophobic and scant refuge from the savagery which envelops it.

Sherriff's account of life in the trenches benefits from the authenticity of his experiences serving in, and being wounded in, the trenches. The language and dialogue is of its time with decent public school types, and times being topping or beastly, but its everyman tale of war comes from the heart and still moves the soul. That skill was later to shine in his screenplay for The Dambusters.

The play opens with contemporary battlefield film projected on to a front screen, and ends with a roll of remembrance for those who gave their lives during Operation Michael.

Simple candles provide the only illumination save for the backlit steps in a white light only production which is introduced by an in depth analysis of a sock, which was as exciting as it was for much of the time in the trenches.


Director Emily Armstrong is fortunate in having Robert Newton as the lead, Captain Stanhope. Newton carries the production with his neurotic, powerful, compelling portrayal of a young man burdened with the responsibilities of command.

Alan Lowe is a strong support as “Uncle” Lieutenant Osborne, a quiet, assured, touchstone for Stanhope, and the conscience of the tale. Jon Flood is outstanding as rookie fresh faced second Lieutenant Raleigh, whose gushing enthusiasm is soon tempered by the cruelty of conflict.

To modern eyes the characters are well established stereotypes, an officer suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; a quietly heroic school teacher, and po-faced top brass.

Sherriff’s script is much stronger in the second half than the first, which both run to around seventy five minutes. The defining scene is when Stanhope confronts a terrified second Lieutenant Hibbert who is determined to try to leave his post. Tom Frater movingly emotes Hibbert’s distress, Stanhope combines pugnacity with compassion.

The writing combines typical soldiers' black humour with a whimsy which the television series MASH developed several decades later.

Osborne quotes Lewis Carroll: "'The time has come,' the Walrus said,/ 'To talk of many things:/ Of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax - / Of cabbages and kings'." Mason, the cook, is pilloried for running out of pepper: "War is bad enough with pepper. Without pepper it's...bloody awful."

Emily Armstrong skilfully negotiates an effective ending with Stanhope mourning the death of a colleague as the cacophony of a German onslaught deafens, the players gathering for the curtain call behind a mesh curtain as the roll call of the actual dead plays on the front of the curtain. Poignant and moving. Journey’s End runs to 06-09-14.

Gary Longden


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