Journey's End (4 stars)

Journey's End

credit: Adrian Scarbrough

WWI drama set and performed in Flanders

From its earliest production in 1928, R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End has set the tone for much of the theatre set during the First World War: a polished mixture of sentimentality and harsh naturalism, it follows the lives of the officer class in the British trenches, revealing both their aspirations, anxieties and courage in the face of horror and death. From Stanhope's attempts to hide his fear beneath alcohol, Raleigh's school-boy optimism and Osbourne's avuncular compassion, these characters neither offer a justification or condemnation of the war, but simply reveal its contours and climaxes.

Sally Woodcock's direction is measured and thoughtful, allowing the ensemble to express the detail of the characterisation, but the decision to stage this production in Ypres – the location in which the events of the play happened and now part of the battlefield tourism industry – lends it a sharp poignancy that lifts it above another generic WWII memorial production. Performed within one of the few buildings not flattened between 1914 and 1918, Tim Peacock's original design evokes the gloomy interiors of trench warfare, encasing the cast within the history that their performances describe. It is a moving meditation on the familiar theme that soldiers, in whatever war, fight for each other rather than any political or moral idea.

With a strong cast, MESH's production uses the evocative design and the rich relationships between the cast to make the script capture a moment in history and lend it a contemporary resonance. Tom Kay's Stanhope is, by turns, a raging monster hiding his cynicism with bluster and a compassionate leader resigned to the death of his colleagues and friends: Terry Burns manages to lend Trotter a warmth and humour that doesn't dwell in the darkness. Journey's End in Ypres becomes a moving and precise reflection on a war that, even a century after the armistice, still haunts the imagination of Europe.

Het Kruitmagazijn, Ypres, Belgium, until Mon 12 Nov.

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