By R C Sherriff
13 - 18 April, 2015
The play’s action takes place over four days from 18 to 21 March 1918 leading upto Operation Michael or Kaiserschlacht. The Germans planned this operation to gain control of the Channel Ports to halt british supplies. Whilst knowing tha attack was coming, the British had no idea of the precise date, time or location. Subsequently they spent months in the trenches simply waiting ……and waiting…..
The play had an unusual and bumpy start in life! The Incorporated Stage Society only went with it because they were desperate to fill their December 1928 slot – even if it meant trusting a new playwright – RC Sherriff, himself a WW1 soldier having served at Vinny Ridge. Casting was problematic; no actor of note would consider it so it got no media attention. The subject matter was risky. The generals didn’t like it. The heavy whiskey consumption was controversial. The audiences were well aware of the now-forgotten black day depicted ie 21 March 1918, the start of Operation Michael when the British suffered 38,000 casualties on the first day alone, with over a million shells fired at British lines in five hours. Eventually the unknown Laurence Olivier agreed to play Stanhope, and sheriff loaned him his WW1 uniform for authenticity. Other members of the original cast included broke and down-at-heel ex-soldiers with no stage experience, who in fact were ‘playing themselves’ – possibly in their own clothes. The play ended up a smash hit by the end of 1929, 14 companies were performing it, and 17 translations were running in Europe. Today, it is highly acclaimed and regarded as possibly the finest war play ever written.
What you are seeing tonight is a snapshot of Kitchener’s New Army in 1918 – a jumble of classes, educations, backgrounds, ages, sizes…….just waiting! The play evokes a school dormitory atmosphere – with chat, dubious food, duty roster, tobacco smoke and camaraderie. You are part of a world of candlelit fellowship in a hole in the ground! But in addition you are witness to the tension and heartbreak of a war fought by men who have to face the unfaceable and who realise that concealment of their own fear is the hardest task of all.
The crew and cast dedicate this production to the memory of all those who lost their lives in war, those whom we knew and whose memory we treasure, and those we never knew, who lived and died in the service of their country.