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Stepping into the converted wine cellar in Merchants 1688 was like stepping back in time into a dugout circa 1918. It was dark, claustrophobic, warm and made for an extremely intimate performance setting of R.C Sheriff’s ‘Journey’s End’. It was an inspired choice by director Callum Berridge; in putting the action so close to the audience it made an already unsettling play that much more intense.
The action in the play is set entirely in the dugout, showing how war can totally corrupt and warp the mentality of the five officers who inhabit it for the six days of the play’s duration. The officers aren’t the only characters in the play – there’s also a class issue shown by the interaction of the character Private Mason, who is something of dogsbody to the officers. Other characters include the stalwart Sergeant Major, the Colonel who always seems to be the bearer of bad news, and the outgoing officer of Hardy. These characters came and went through the small space, bringing news of the outside world to the audience as they did so.
The acting was of a superb standard throughout, and even though I knew the outcome I was still on the edge of my seat as the play progressed towards its fateful conclusion. I even cried a little bit when Raleigh died. I’d remembered from English AS Level that the stalwart and kindly Osbourne, played so well by Michael Dodds, was for the bone yard. I’d forgotten, however, that the innocent character of Raleigh was for it to, and the final scene between the bereaved Stanhope (Alexander Varey) and Raleigh (Bradley Goss) really brought home the futility of the conflict.
Berridge’s choice of finale was also a nice nod to the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War. In lieu of a curtain call and bow, he had his actors recite the poem Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, the war poet who was killed in the conflict in 1918. It was a fitting end to a great adaptation of the play. All profits from the performances went to the Royal British Legion.