Panting, trembling, laughter. Nervous laughter. The black feeling of the trenches sticks to you as soon as the dialogue starts. It is intense and focussed all the way through, evoking the soldiers’ minds trapped in their trenches, in their pits of mud whose walls look out bleakly onto ruins.
This is a difficult atmosphere to create but they have more than managed it. They have used hessian sacking and metal crates on their small, dark stage to press you into the claustrophobic atmosphere of the front line.
Officer Hibbert, played by Benedict Nicholson, with his agonised pleas to leave the trenches, reminds me of a small child desperate not to go to school: he is pitiable and pathetic and his horror is everything, boxed in by his repeated words, “I can’t”.
Alex Fisher in the role of Stanhope, is a very real commander. He is like a man with many faces, revolving around as the play moves forward, so that he evolves from strong captain to floundering comrade to bereaved friend.
The final scenes tingle with emotion, and it is here that we see a whole new layer of the strain that the soldiers carry around with them. On top of the personal drama – the fear, horror and shock conveyed so well in earlier dialogues – there is the burden on a wider scale; the briefing to win the war, and the uncertainty as to which side will succeed. This is something which, tangled up in the lives of the individual men, could be easily forgotten, but in the final few moments is a lingering pressure. Perhaps this is a factor in the slightly abrupt ending – because this play after all represents just a tiny episode in the long struggle of the war, full of everything for that collection of soldiers but only the smallest of spikes in the flow of history.
Be warned: this is not a play for the faint-hearted. It is serious, at times upsetting, and will completely suck you in. It is historical, and things like this happened – probably lots of times, to lots of different people. But these are things that we need to know about – and when they are being played out so powerfully, so convincingly, in the vicinity by such an accomplished cast, I say it would be a crime against curiosity, not to mention the red poppy in my jacket, not to buy a ticket straight away and relive, as much as we ever can, our past.