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Journey's End at Bolton Octagon

Published by: Cameron Lowe on 12th Sep 2014 | View all blogs by Cameron Lowe
Review by Kirstie  Niland

Journey's End

Playwright R. C. Sherriff originally considered calling Journey’s End "Suspense" and Waiting" and this is exactly what it entails. The horrific reality of the First World War, where men were sent out to the trenches and waited to die.

The Octagon’s theatre-in-the-round gives heightened intimacy to this remarkable and moving performance, directed by internationally acclaimed Director David Thacker. The arena layout also lends itself perfectly to the stage set of an officers’ dugout.
 
Enormous attention to detail has been paid to the set, built from 50 scrap pallets, 100 recycled scaffolding boards, 21000L of top soil, 700 hessian sandbags & 200m of steel. The result is paradoxically inviting, belying the horror that lies beyond. Even with the sound effects of gunfire and bombs going off around us, it seems the officers are relatively safe in their cocoon.
 
So it’s understandable that Hibbert (Ciaran Kellgren) would rather let Stanhope (James Dutton) shoot him dead in the dug-out than face the torturous walk to the terror of the frontline. Even though Stanhope brands him a “little worm” you know that every one of the men there must feel the same, they just don’t say it.
 
Under David Thacker’s brilliant direction, asking the actors to believe it is really they themselves waiting to die, allowing them to improvise, Journey’s End comes painfully alive.
 
The rawness of Ciaran Kellgren’s emotion as Hibbert breaks down before Stanhope’s revolver is truly palpable; as is Stanhope’s when his school friend Raleigh (Tristan Brooke), who annoys him so much, meets his fate with the same ready acceptance that he goes to the fontline. His eager innocence, finding being chosen for the raid “frightfully exciting”, contrasts sharply with Stanhope’s shame when he censors Raleigh’s letter home, only to discover words full of praise not the disappointment he expected.
 
Journey's End
 
Every single actor gives the play depth. James Dutton is riveting as he shows the audience the stark complexity and vulnerability of Stanhope beneath the angry aloofness. And even without speaking, the local drama students guarding the dug-out throughout, playing cards and polishing their weapons, underline the agonising wait.
Based on Sherriff’s own experiences, each of the men he has written into the play has his own coping mechanism, and each of the actors manages to convey the hidden pain poignantly. 
 
When Stanhope mentally pushes Trotter (Richard Graham) to react, accusing him of always feeling the same, you want to shout “Stop”. Titanic star Richard Graham, for once in a role like his own real self, rather than the film and television bad guys he’s become famous for, makes you warm to his gentle, jovial nature. But you know that his retreat into conversations about food and 8ft dahlias is a safety net, not a lack of emotion.
 
Similarly, Osborne, the heroic tower of strength, finds his distraction in poems from Alice in Wonderland. David Birrell who plays him exudes courage and kindness, making it entirely credible that he would reassure the others and protect Raleigh to the death.
 
The actors in this performance successfully lay bare the concealed and raw emotions of the real men who waited for death in dugouts, where the smell of bacon mixed with the stench of rats.
 
Journey’s End is played out over “6 eternal days”, which as Trotter informs us, is 144 hours, or 8640 minutes. This moving performance makes you feel every second of it.
 
Journey’s End is at the Octagon from Thursday 4 September – Saturday 4 October 2014. Tickets are from £26.50 - £10 on 01204 520661, or at  www.octagonbolton.co.uk 

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