R. C. Sherriff’s 1928 tale of life in the trenches at the tail end of World War I was, remarkably, his first professional work, despite feeling like a master storyteller at the top of his game. Part of the reason it feels so viscerally realistic is that Sherriff drew directly own experiences: in the programme notes, he is quoted as saying that he “merely had to write down what people said.”
In the play, a small platoon takes over a trench for what is supposed to be a week, but they soon realise that the Germans are planning a major offensive in a few days’ time – and while nobody will say it outright, there’s realisation that few, if any, of them are expected to survive. New to the platoon is 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh (Graham Butler), an eager young pup who was a childhood friend of the platoon’s commander, Captain Stanhope (James Norton).
After three years in the field, though, Stanhope is not the devil-may-care pal of Raleigh’s youth: while he is absolutely, utterly respected, indeed loved, by those in his command, his only real friend is found in a bottle.
The claustrophobic living conditions in the trenches are effectively realised in Jonathan Fensom’s meticulous set design, while Sherriff’s script highlights how terror and raucous humour live side by side. The platoon’s attitudes to the cookery of Private Mason (Tony Turner), which is especially sought after by the portly Trotter (Christian Patterson), act as a light counterpoint to some of the play’s more upsetting scenes, especially when Hibbert (Simon Harrison) reveals his increasingly fragile mental state. Harrison’s performance protrays well the enormous mental cost that goes alongside the physical on the frontline.
Indeed, for a play that was written over 80 years ago, the messages about life in wartime remain contemporary, especially for a nation which currently has troops overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the curtain call, in which the actors stand as memorial statues in front of a wall full of the names of fallen British soldiers, adds a final poignant note to a play that is full of them.