R.C. Sherriff’s three-act depiction of life in the trenches during the run-up to the Germans’ last great offensive of WW I should become required reading for the world’s military: officers, troops and their conniving, cowardly leaders; Christopher Newton’s Shaw Festival production—with its engaging cast and detail-rich set—should become required viewing for veterans of any conflict, programmed this year no doubt to complement the commemoration of the “end” of World War II.
But wars never end. The fighting stops, treaties are signed, the media move on to another story. Yet the devastation lingers both in the wrecked families and minds of the living, even as new dead are harvested daily. Still today, hidden landmines and buried mortars continue their deadly function well past their “best before date.” What a spectacular tribute to the know-how of the world’s military industries’ excellence: Death “R” Us, indeed.
Captain Stanhope (Evan Buliung) has been leading his company for so long that he’s the only one remaining from the original cast. The men love him. His dedication to duty and courage is as legendary as his “hard drinker” skills: a bottle-a-day keeps his demons away. As the play opens, his charges are set to relieve another company for a six-day stint that will coincide with a mighty push from the Boche—dug into their own muck just “the width of a soccer pitch” away. Grey-haired Lieutenant Osborne (Patrick Galligan), affectionately known as “Uncle” to his much younger colleagues, is a schoolmaster who keeps what little remains of his sanity by reading passages from Alice in Wonderland. His opening dialogue to complete the takeover from Captain Hardy (Blair Williams) is one sided: Galligan’s read is spot on—simultaneously all business and providing much of the back-story, where Williams seems content to deliver his replies on a superficial, too-hurried plane that dampens much of the script’s sub-text and irony.
The glue to the scenes and much of the comic relief comes in the form of the company cook. Private Mason (Simon Bradbury, brilliant in his timing and tone) mixes up his own survival techniques. He banters to the point of being “familiar” with his uppers as he tirelessly dishes out “yellow soup,” “onion tea,” and scotch.
The new officer on the block is Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Jeff Lillico). Using family influence, Raleigh has had himself assigned to serve with Stanhope, his former schoolmate and hero. They were more than just acquaintances. Stanhope carries a picture of Raleigh’s sister, Madge, in his tunic. Now, with her little brother constantly at his side, Stanhope is petrified that his alcoholism will be reported, squelching any chance of their union once victory has been declared. In the script, and through Newton’s interpretation (notably ignoring the “few tattered magazine pictures pinned to the wall of girls in flimsy costumes”), the slight simmer of just how close the attractive boys/men were is left to the imaginations and sensitivity of the audience.
Their reunion is a major plot point, yet Lillico errs in playing the early scenes more “ah shucks” than just star-struck naïve, which robs Act I of its pace.; But the proceedings begin an unstoppable march of their own when Second Lieutenant Hibbert (Jeff Meadows, magnificent emotional range) breaks down and tearfully admits his inner fears to Stanhope. From here, the writing and performances gain strength and momentum that never abate until the inevitable carnage clears the set of anything but death. Stanhope and Raleigh say their goodbyes unforgettably. No food jokes remain: chef has exchanged his soup spoon for a machine gun, his best customer, Second Lieutenant Trotter (William Vickers, the pride of the officers in his ability to lift his delivery to the very front of the lines) having escaped “raid duty” because of his excessive girth, steps into the line of fire with a target few could miss.
Newton and his capable team—Louise Guinand’s oil-to-electric candle technique a marvel; Cameron Porteous’ design faithful to the era, if not the reality of how dirty the men “living” in the cesspools of combat would really be; the uncredited sound designer’s bombs, birds and squealing rats added convincing depth—have brought Sherriff’s horrific truth to life with skill, insight and care. More’s the pity its message will continue to be lost on those who predicate war, dismissed as mere theatre and far beyond their sense of reality. JWR