The working title for R.C. Sheriff’s First World War play Journey’s End was ‘Waiting’ and therein lay the challenge for the Third and Fourth Form boys whose task it was to create the tense, claustrophobic living conditions of those soldiers confined (mostly) to trenches in the days and nights leading up to the battle of St Quentin.
With a play less a sequence of dramatic events and more a series of (sometimes deliberately inane) conversations, it was demanding for the cast to fulfil Mr Parson’s remit that they ‘live truthfully in imaginary circumstances’, yet this they did. In a play freighted with trenchant examinations of duty, loyalty and survival, yet pervaded by subtle moods of boredom, nervousness and evasion, the cast managed to find the requisite layers to their performances and were superbly led by Angus Warburg who found skilful range in his portrayal of the beleaguered infantry commander, Stanhope. The role required Angus to move between rage, despair, ennui, compassion, even whisky-fuelled mawkishness, yet each mood was achieved with moving authenticity and the overall effect was duly heart-rending.
Another role which posed a particular challenge for a junior schoolboy was the avuncular Osborne, yet Ben Elliott captured him most effectively; Will Shawe-Taylor was wide-eyed and ingenuous as Raleigh; Henry Weekes concentrated brilliantly on the neurasthenia of Hibbert; Joe Mosley won the audience’s affection for bluff old Trotter just as much as James Snell alienated us from the obtuse Colonel and Lucas Paul was perfect as the put-upon Mason. Excellent supporting work came from Robert Hartwell as the Sergeant-Major, Angus Moore as the young German soldier and Bertie Calvert survived the pre-show front-row distractions of Mr Bell to put in a performance as the departing commander, Hardy.
As a production whose stated aim was to serve as ‘a living memorial to the boys, staff and masters of Shrewsbury School who fought and perished in the Great War’, it behoved the boys to give all that they had to the responsibilities of their roles. The attention given to the props and staging was a vital part of helping the boys to understand the ‘life conditions’ of the trench and the director, Mr Parsons (who has now taken up his new role as Head of Theatre at Oklahoma City University) sourced a range of genuine World War 1 memorabilia and trench artefacts. The high level of re-enactment was furthered by the excellent costuming and make-up and the set – which took over a month to build – was expertly painted by Niki Holmes to give the boys a credible and engaging environment. It didn’t feel as if these were merely boys playing at something, as such a play might have done, and the cast convinced in the crucial humdrum of how they handled their weapons, smoke, drank, packed their kit etc. etc. Mrs Law with make-up and assistant direction; Mrs Besterman with music and sound effects; Sian Archer coaching movement; Will Allott stage managing assisted by Thomas Drury; Tom Brennan operating the lights: all ensured that the play ran flawlessly.
And so when one considers the impact that Sheriff was seeking in his stage directions towards the climax of the play when the trench is attacked with ‘the sharp crack of the rifle grenades, the thud of the shells and the boom of the Minewerfer mingling together in a muffled roar’, it was crucial that the production’s values were carried through to Alex Davies’ lighting design and Sam Clewlow’s management of the sound, and indeed they were, for, after all the barraging noise, the smoke and the strobe lighting – which had stilled into a tableau of the cast, over whom the names of the Salopians commemorated on the Sidney memorial were projected – the audience left the Ashton sombre, moved.
To view more photos, please see Journey's End photo gallery
To view an interview with Director Brian Parsons and Head Technician Alex Davies explaining some of the background to staging Journey's End, please see the video Salopian Week 2014 - Shrewsbury School TV goes behind the scenes