FOR David Grindley, director of the award-winning First World War play Journey’s End, which comes to the Lyceum this autumn, every visit to the trenches in northern France where the drama is set is an emotional experience.
“I have never failed to be moved by coming here,” he says at the memorial on Vimy Ridge.
“The ghosts of the men remain. They do come out at night. There is too much blood in the soil.”
Grindley had interrupted rehearsals of Moliere’s The Misanthrope at Stratford, Ontario to lead a press party to the trenches where he had gained much of his inspiration for the play. An enthusiastic, bespectacled man, he has been showered with critical approval and awards on both sides of the Atlantic since reviving R C Sherriff’s classic play in 2003.
This summer it returns to the West End and also goes on national tour, playing at the Lyceum from October 31 until November 5. He says it has gone through “11 incarnations involving 83 actors.”
Small wonder then that he says it is his “life-defining show as a director.”
If visiting the battlefields is an emotional experience for him – this is the fourth time – it is no less so for his audiences, who have to be warned that they will experience the sounds, if not the actual physical effects, of a bombardment similar to that endured by the Tommies in the trenches.
It is all the more effective as the set, which faithfully reproduces the kind of dugout Sherriff himself experienced, is a dimly-lit, tightly enclosed space where for much of the time there is silence broken only by conversation and the sound of men eating.
This realism, which heightens the dramatic tension of the play, surprised even the actors themselves who were amazed at how small it was.
Sherriff, a former insurance agent who won the Military Cross after volunteering for the East Surrey Regiment and fighting at Vimy, Loos and Passchendaele, sets the play over four days at St Quentin, culminating in the biggest German assault of the war.
The drama revolves around five officers, all of whom are consumed by fear but deal with it in different ways. Stanhope, the commanding office, uses whisky and work. Osborne, his older deputy, listens and recites Edward Lear. Trotter, promoted from the ranks, fusses over his food. Hibbert is terrified and invents neuralgia.
They are joined by Raleigh, who has wangled the posting because Stanhope, only three years older, was his hero at school. All the men are soon to be tested.
Grindley found it difficult at first to get anyone interested in “reviving an old war-horse,” as he puts it. They were more or less the same problems Sherriff originally had in 1928. Then he was told no-one wanted to be reminded of the war, there was not much of a set and – the killer punch – no leading lady.
Grindley, aged 38, first came across the play at 19 when his younger brother was studying it for his GCSE and thought he might be interested.
Something must have stayed with him subliminally because he made the effort to see Sam West as Stanhope in a small production at the King’s Head, Islington in 1998.
When he decided to revive Journey’s End (he has had great success reviving other plays such as Abigail’s Party and What The Butler Saw), he had the same pitfalls as Sherriff.
It was not until he realised it was coming up to the 75th anniversary of the play’s first production that he realised he had a peg on which to hang it.
He recalls pitching the play to a producer who had “just 12 minutes left on his parking meter. As he ran out the door I called after him, ‘I will direct the definitive version of this play!’ I was given the green light for eight weeks. It went on to run for 18 weeks in the West End.”
Grindley was determined his actors should be the same age as in the play. Stanhope is about 21, Raleigh 18. As he says: “There are not that many actors who have made their name at that age.”
He was also keen to grasp some of what they and Sherriff had experienced. “Journey’s End is the only First World War play in English written by someone who took part.”
He visited battle sites with designer Jonathan Fensom (and Jonathan’s dad). When they got to the French trenches at Notre Dame de Lorette, which unlike others have not been maintained and “improved,” it was closed so the two younger men “leapt over the fence to take a look.”
With the success of the play they regarded Fensom Senior to be a bit of a mascot and took him with them to Broadway in 2007, where the play won a Tony and Drama Desk award.
It was at Vimy that he picked up a story which he uses to motivate the actors who play Stanhope. In the play Sherriff suggests there was a particular incident which sent him to the whisky bottle.
A young captain with 100 men was ordered to attack the German positions at 2am. All but five were slaughtered by a Maxim gun in a hidden position. “That incident was a brilliant thing to tell an actor, this is what happened to Stanhope,” he says
lJourney’s End is at the Lyceum Theatre from October 31 to November 5.