Journey’s End

‘This play managed to be insistently dull’. JESSICA PATTERSON reviews this week’s ADC mainshow.

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ADC Theatre, 2-7th November, 7.45pm,  £6-10

Directed by  Christopher Poel


‘Journey’s End’ has a significant place in that rite of passage likely to have been experienced by the typical Cambridge thespian: A-level English literature. How fitting then that I and my literary companion appeared to be the only people not hastily ushered to our seats by harassed looking teachers in kaftans.

The educational value is perhaps the only explanation one can give for the choice to stage this particular play. It was a full house, but the constant rustle of sweet wrappers, muffled laughter and the tap-tap-tap of teenagers Tweeting to one another suggests that it was less than awed. Compelled to watch only by the looming pressure of ‘assessment objectives’ (or as my frustrated management graduate of a lit teacher put it ‘personalised achievement goals’), the students failed to be moved.

This play is now dated in its theatrical merit. It has been consigned to that litany of ‘texts’ whose qualities are in their pedagogic ability to encourage the passive student into considering ‘what it was really like’. I am not denying that this is a valid end. Nor am I suggesting that the existential questions of the First World War are not appropriate theatrical subject matter. What I am saying, however, is that there are more imaginative and effective ways of doing this than the naturalistic staging of a timeworn script.

Unfortunately this is exactly what director Christopher Poel has chosen to do. Despite the infinite resources of the ADC and the varied talents of a largely strong cast, this play managed to be insistently dull. Apart from the occasional rumble of shells (accompanied by flashes of red and blue light that managed to be both unnatural and unconvincing), very little happened to create any sense of momentum. Perhaps one could be kind and point out that this highlighted the unassailable futility of front line warfare (an observation surely worth a tick in an assessment column); yet it smacked more of the futility of this performance.

Slow and heavy-handed dialogue was only contrasted with unsubtly executed bouts of hysteria. One could again claim that this too was expressive of the strained emotional situation of men trying to hold on to some semblance of normality in highly exceptional circumstances. Indeed, this is what I would like to have been able to say. What it expressed, however, was unimaginative direction – it was like a Powell & Pressburger Waiting For Godot; it didn’t work.

There were, though, some flashes of brilliance which nudge it up to two stars. Osborne and Raleigh trying to distract themselves from their inevitable fate by way of some frightfully English ‘chit chat’ was the most genuinely moving moment in the entire play. Yet, like the moonlit glisten of piss in a trench, these fleeting moments stood out only because their surroundings were so bleak.

In addition to visual direction, the problem can be attributed to the lack of all round character development made by the cast. Josh Stamp-Simon as Osborne was incredibly endearing, but possessed none of the avuncular presence necessary a character nicknamed ‘Uncle’. Likewise Will Attenborough (as Stanhope) was capable in his more emotional alcohol-fuelled speeches, but had none of the authority necessary to his heroic persona.

I hesitate to sum up the rest of the cast as I am about to, as it was perhaps not their fault, but the pervasiveness of this trait was difficult to avoid. For some reason everyone else was unsettlingly camp. Phrases such as ‘I’ve longed to be in his regiment’, ‘Kiss me, Uncle’ and ‘Are you keen on any special men?’ were lent a new meaning, and a bored audience laughed with relief whenever this broke the tedium.

Only Liane Grant (in drag as Trotter) avoided this trait, but the ludicrous decision to have her play a man ruptured any sense of naturalism and brought the production hurtling towards pantomime. It is desperately important to know your audience, and if you are going to pander to set texts you should put on a production immune to pubescent sniggers. For example, don’t have Hibbert tenderly fellate Stanhope’s pistol and then lean in for a cuddle.

I left feeling nostalgic about school trips, so at least the play stimulated some emotion. Rather than reflect on the tragically wasted lives of these men, this production compelled a consideration of the wasted talent and resources of the ADC.