Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
‘Your Country Needs You’ says the empire-building legend on the stage
curtain as an accusatory pre-cursor to David Grindley’s mighty and
elegiac production of R.C. Sherriff’s World War One play, which, more
than eighty years after it first appeared, seems as tragically
pertinent as ever. Set in a British officers dug-out on the eve of the
March 1918 German offensive, it’s a bleak and twitchy world we’re led
into, that resembles an extension of a public school dormitory, with
all the same pecking orders intact.
Top of the heap is Stanhope, a once heroic figure whose mercurial
nature has been tempered by terror, self-loathing and whisky after
three years in charge on the frontline. Into this highly-strung
emotional morass comes Raleigh, who hero-worshipped Stanhope at school,
and now sees war as some kind of Boys Own romance. The shell-shocked
reality, however, is starkly different.
Jonathan Fenson’s claustrophobic, candle-lit set looks almost sepia
tinted in Sherriff’s slow-burning masterpiece about how boys were
forced to be men for a cause they could barely grasp. The full fear of
each man is captured perfectly, be it through gallows humour, the
fragile venom of James Norton’s Stanhope, or Hibbert’s out and out
terror. The scene between Raleigh and second in command Osborne as they
prepare for their mission feels as if they’re awaiting their execution.
When the shells start landing outside, the only noises apart from human
speech echo like the amplified and irregular heartbeats of the
terrified cannon fodder sounding their own death knell. As the volume
increases with the screams while the curtain falls, it’s a horrifying
moment in a grippingly intense production.
The Herald, March 17th 2011