IN A damp World War One dugout reeking of sweat, candle grease and rats the jokey hints on earwig racing are over, and debates over the onion-flavoured tea fade to contemplation of fate.
Stoic Lt Osborne, a sponge soaking up everyone’s anger and dread, slips off his cherished wedding ring and places it on the roughly hewn table.
Naive, fresh-faced 2nd Lt Raleigh, newly arrived and over-eager to join Osborne in a dangerous raid, has a moment’s nagging doubt as he watches Osborne hand over personal items. Perhaps this war business isn’t such a jolly jape?
Osborne, boiling underneath with a fear that he does not want to infect others with, merely hints he doesn’t want to risk losing his ring.
In a play of many searing moments of emotion that is the one that is branded in my mind. Experience over innocence.
Osborne not only loses his ring but also his life, and against the statisical odds Raleigh staggers back, the gaping blood-soaked gashes of stabbing bayonet and flesh-mangling bomb warfare he’d never seen before reflected in his shocked eyes.
It’s churlish to have a star turn in such a galaxy of fine performances from every cast member but Dominic Mafham marked my card as Osborne, ready to defend to the death just about anybody, including especially the drunken but admired Captain Stanhope, a man not so much on the edge of the emotional cliff as hanging halfway over it.
Graham Butler was perfect in the role of lean and childlike-keen Raleigh, brilliantly portraying his dismay at the alcohol-fuelled rages of his school hero Stanhope,
Butler’s finest moment comes when Raleigh is later carried back after being fatally wounded.
Anyone who thinks there is glory in war should have watched this superbly executed heartbreaking scene of him dying in unbearable agony and trying to stifle his young terror as Stanhope lied out of love and told him he merely had a “blighty” that would get him home.
James Norton’s mesmerising portrayal of the edgy, haunted hard-drinking Stanhope captured his guilt at sending men to certain death while at the same time enforcing army orders he plainly viewed as suicidal and wasteful of lives.
Tough on the troops as well as on himself, he melts with emotion when he is told how much the doomed Raleigh admires him and Norton’s keen capturing of this tender moment was in contrast to the verbal violence he unleashed so brilliantly when the booze and the pressures took hold.
There are some fine smaller roles in the play, with Tony Turner as Private Mason and Christian Patterson as the larger than life Trotter both providing the shafts of humour that illuminate the gloom of the dugout.
The doomy sound effects of crashing bombs and the deathly rattle of machine guns left us in no doubt of the fate of Stanhope and his men as they left to face a massive and murderous German raid.
Journey’s End is not an easy play to watch, but this uniformly excellent cast ensured it was well worth the effort.