by Spencer Malthouse
In the midst of the calamity of noise and mud are men. R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End is a story of how they coped with the fear and the blood and their attempts to keep a stiff upper lip when all they knew turned to blackness. Empty Room’s production is forthright, honest, and gut wrenching. We are carried right along with the emotion of going over the top and the bleak burning pointlessness of it all.
Second Lieutenant Raleigh joins C Company in spring of 1918, immediately before the largest German offensive of the war. He has come to follow Captain Stanhope, one of his school heroes. He meets a Blackadder-like troupe of officers, led by the once proud but now broken and alcoholic Captain Stanhope. The 2 hours, 45 minutes of the play take place over the three days before the German offensive.
The runtime could have been reduced somewhat and Captain Stanhope’s revolver was too obviously plastic. The set is beautifully constructed and is a true representation of an officer’s dugout. The lighting is particularly well designed; especially the coloured flares and the final red glare. This along with a reasonably effective soundtrack combined to transport us to 1918.
The strongest presence in the play is the affable Lieutenant Osborne (Robert Tsonos). We are drawn to this schoolmaster character who serves as teacher, father, and mediator to the men. Tsonos is pitch perfect in his portrayal, capturing the essence of a British officer. He is not the focus of each scene but his presence supports and enlivens the others, both as actors and characters.
Jesse Nerenberg plays an adorable, Frodo-like Raleigh. He is sympathetic and convincing as a bright-eyed young officer, fresh from one of the better schools. The most talented actor amongst the splendid cast is Richard Beaune who is amusing but somehow tragic deep below his portly joviality. He has a splendid touch as an actor, down to noticing the heat of his teacup.
The production’s weakest point is Captain Stanhope (Andrew Petker). Stanhope is a deeply troubled and nuanced antihero, who is driven to drink by years of the war. Petker caught the tragedy but boiled over with excessive rage. His utterly reprehensible attempt at an English accent cast him as a loud American rather than a deeply flawed and depressed English officer.
The story itself is deeply touching and this production succeeds in its truth to the original story. As we approach the 100th anniversary of The Great War the emotions and tragedy of this play still resonate deeply. I strongly recommend this polished production.