Journey’s End review: Not so much a ‘must-see show’ but a ‘must have experience’

PUBLISHED: 15:38 04 October 2017 | UPDATED: 09:52 11 October 2017

Alex Phelps and Tom Kay in Journey's End [Picture: Josh MacMillan]

Alex Phelps and Tom Kay in Journey's End [Picture: Josh MacMillan]

Josh MacMillan MESH Theatre Company

Deborah Heath reviews MESH Theatre Company’s production of Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff.

Terry Burns, Peter Watts and Greg Snowden in Journey's End [Picture: Josh MacMillan]Terry Burns, Peter Watts and Greg Snowden in Journey's End [Picture: Josh MacMillan]

“You think there’s no limit to what a man can bear?”

During this World War One centenary period, watching R.C. Sherriff’s semi-autobiographical play about the horrors of trench warfare is an appropriate tribute.

However in the case of this outstanding, challenging production by MESH Theatre Company, it was also a great privilege.

Using mere words I can only go halfway towards explaining why this was one of the most deeply affecting pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

St Albans-based director Sally Woodcock explains that MESH’s objective is to stage plays in the most appropriate place possible.

This makes them more relevant for actors and audience alike, giving them all an immersive theatrical experience.

Dan Dawes, Terry Burns and Tom Kay in Journey's End [Picture: Josh MacMillan]Dan Dawes, Terry Burns and Tom Kay in Journey's End [Picture: Josh MacMillan]

As one of a lucky small audience, including local scouts, we huddled together in the performance space; a Wheathampstead barn, effectively in the trenches with the soldiers.

As Sherriff’s strong, believable characters dealt with boredom, stress, anticipation and grief, we suffered with them.

I felt physically sick with fear as I watched two officers Rayleigh (Rory Fairbarn) and ‘Uncle’ Osborne (Steve Edwin) go to their certain death.

Aside from dealing with heavy themes such as alcoholism, madness and hero worship, the play is also peppered with humour.

Whether the tea tastes of onions or the cutlets are of unknown origin, the men still need to get through their meals with a smile.

“What sort of yellow soup is this Mason?”

“Very yellow sir!”

I asked actor Tom Kay how he dealt with the emotional demands of playing commanding officer Stanhope and performing it in such an intimate environment.

He assured me that while it was a challenge, it was also “an absolute pleasure to be speaking Sherriff’s words”.

Indeed there was a vibe amongst the whole talented cast that their exertion was a fitting tribute to those who had given their lives 100 year ago.

Enlivened by these hugely successful dress rehearsals, MESH are taking their production all the way to Flanders Fields where it will be staged in one of the only surviving buildings from WWI – Kruitmagazijn, a gunpowder store in Ypres.

They will return in 2018, also visiting Thiepval, France.

I cannot urge readers enough to make the trip to Belgium for what will be an authentic and utterly unique experience.

What made Journey’s End so powerful was not just the experienced voice and of its creator, but the uniqueness of this particular staging.

The vision and passion of director Sally Woodcock and producer Ben Darmanin combined with their award-worthy cast make this not so much a “must-see show” but a “must have experience”.

I wish MESH all the best for their tour of Ypres, and thank them for opening my eyes and heart to the reality of life in the trenches.

• Journey’s End can be seen in Belgium from October 10 to November 12, 2017.

For more details, visit www.meshtheatre.com/journeysend.html

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