Come on, my lad, let’s go and see about this ’ere war,” says grizzled vet to fresh-faced rookie as they head out into the trench. It’s France, 1918, and the British are dug into positions just 50 yards from the German front line. An attack could come at any moment—tension’s high—but Journey’s End isn’t one of those plays wherein the English speechify then put some enemy gloriously to the sword. Mainly they wait, trying to keep those upper lips stiff during the hours or minutes remaining before the fight. One officer reads Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; another puts whiskey in his tea; a third wonders what the hell kind of soup this is. “It’s yellow soup, sir,” explains the cook. Everybody wishes he were at home.
After Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan and Clint Eastwood’s movies, little about R. C. Sherriff’s play has the shock of the new. We know about the camaraderie of soldiers, like that between “Uncle” Lieutenant Osborne (Boyd Gaines) and the younger men, and we know that those young men are prematurely aged by battle, like the frazzled Captain Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), who will drink whatever it takes to face the day. Also, its stuffy naturalism, all those clattering dishes and mud-caked boots, isn’t normally my scene. Still, this 1928 play is working some weird spell on its audience. I’ve heard theaters quieter than the Belasco during this show, but not when other people were in them.
If you wonder how a smart director can enliven an old script, look no further, for this show is a triumph of atmosphere. Not only did David Grindley resist the urge to punch up the action with modern allusions or flashy effects, he does everything he can to fix your attention on the world Sherriff conjured with his dialogue. Stanhope and his men bide their time in a low, narrow dugout patched together from distressed wood, and that’s all Grindley lets you see onstage. In fact, you may not see even that. I doubt that there’s been a dimmer play on Broadway since they tore out the gaslights. A few lamps are pointed at the stage, but the candlelit scenes remain so dark that when somebody smokes a pipe, the flare from the match is bright enough to make you squint. The silence is even more nerve-jangling than the gloom, and not just for the soldiers. “Too damn quiet,” says one of the officers after returning from the field, and I knew how he felt, as I tried to muffle the scratching of my pen in my notebook.
Grindley is blessed with a cast that can withstand this scrutiny. Sherriff’s writing asks just about everyone, at one time or another, to exercise a tricky stop-start maneuver: drift from an everyday conversation about the war or the food into a dreamy, half-tempo memory of the missus, or a dark reverie about assorted fears and anxieties, then shake out of the moment and go on chatting. With his easy, sonorous voice, the excellent Gaines has the easiest time of it, showing enough warmth to really seem an Uncle. The talented young Dancy shows flashes of the cavalier spirit that must have made Laurence Olivier mesmerizing when he created the role way back when. He just has a tendency, when stumbling around the stage in distress, to look like an actor stumbling around a stage in distress. As the cook, the exquisite Jefferson Mays once again shows a comic’s timing and a dancer’s physical control, like he might be marionette and puppeteer both.
Plenty of shows leave you thinking about the show: the cleverness of the writing, the pretty scenery. Grindley and his cast direct your attention to the actual soldiers—the men Sherriff fought alongside in that hellish war—and their willingness to die in battles like this one, where the best-case scenario is that their sacrifices might halt the German advance for one day.
By R.C. Sherriff. Belasco Theatre.