In the programme notes, Robert Gore-Langton describes R.C. Sherriff’s relationship with his unit, C Company, as “The great love affair of his life”. This piece has been labelled by many critics as the ultimate anti-war play, but there’s also an emphasis on how the most profound bonding between human beings can only take place in the most extreme and uncomfortable circumstances. There’s a sense of everything being depressingly true to life, which is brilliantly reflected in David Grindley’s starkly naturalistic production and Jonathan Fensom’s claustrophobic, candlelit design.
The painfully fresh-faced Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Graham Butler) arrives in the trenches expecting “An awful row”, and finds his restless fellow soldiers engaged in shooting rats and racing earwigs. The reception he receives from his commanding officer and former school friend Captain Stanhope (the role created by an unknown Laurence Olivier wonderfully played here by James Norton) is less than cordial.
One of the most arresting details is just how young Stanhope and Raleigh are. Raleigh has joined the army straight from school and Stanhope is only be about 21, yet he holds a position of immense responsibility and has for three years endured an existence that is only tolerable with a large amount of whiskey. In such circumstances, the idea of hero worship is almost as terrifying as the war itself. With all sense of normality lost, the youth whom Raleigh idolised on the ‘rugger’ field has changed beyond recognition and has been forced to age prematurely. You’re allowed to feel frightened and wretched, but showing such emotions is unacceptable.
Sherriff drew these characters from life and the characters develop into something more complex through the truthfulness of the language. Sherriff’s portrayal of the rotund and rather simple SecondLieutenant Trotter (Christian Patterson) and the ever-reliable mess orderly Private Mason (Tony Turner) are perhaps a little patronising, but with enough warmth to prevent them from becoming jarring. There’s a gem of a performance by Dominic Mafham as the former schoolteacher ‘Uncle’ Lieutenant Osborne, the one consistently steady and comforting presence. I have rarely seen such an entirely decent human being so truthfully observed and played. Even if hero worship isn’t appropriate, the young men couldn’t have a finer role model. Raleigh could easily be a frightful caricature with his ‘Boy’s Own’ language and attitude (perhaps that’s the point), and while Graham Butler’s performance is slightly mannered, the tragedy of this lamb to the slaughter is keenly felt.
Such finely wrought theatre ought to be rewarded with rapturous applause, but a release of emotion doesn’t seem right. The actors stand impassively in front of a war memorial with a backdrop of the names of dead soldiers and are received with a mixture of startled silence and nervous applause. This is a world that’s as far removed from logic as Osborne’s beloved Alice In Wonderland is. Sherriff wrote this play in 1928 with less than ten years of hindsight – eighty years on, are we really any more enlightened?