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Compelling epitaph for a victim of war

The Window, Albany Theatre Studio, Coventry, to March 17.

We're just a couple of hundred yards away from where James O'Neil was born and raised, and somehow that makes his story all the more poignant.

To the historians, James is just a number, one of nearly a million young men from this country who joined up for a great adventure and fell on the battlefields of the Great War. But here in Spon End, Coventry, among the landmarks of his youth, the young cycle company worker-turned-soldier is being given another crack at life, one hundred years on.

His photographic portrait, clean-cut and determined in army uniform, looks out from a screen high on the studio wall, while down below, on a strip of a stage lined with audience, the events of his short life and instantaneous ending are played out in hushed solemnity.

Writer and director Paul Nolan's new play about his own lost great-uncle has been four years in the making, and it's a thoughtful and compelling piece of work, remarkably free from the 21st century perspective that so often colours our view of The War To End All Wars. He's content to let the story tell itself, and it's all the more powerful and true for that.

There are just two characters in the real-life drama he has shaped for the stage. Rory Nolan, as the irrepressible James, gives a performance of enormous physicality, crawling and bawling his way across the battlefield that opens up before us. Yet he also manages to capture the vulnerability of a doomed generation, uncertain of the cause they fight for, yet committed to it all the same.

As James's older sister Ivy, the still, calm voice of home, Corinne Emerson manages to convey an under-stated grief that only deepens the poignancy of the story. To Ivy is given the one real moment of introspection as she gazes upon the stained glass memorial window from which the play takes its name.

We watch, she says, we look, we observe, but do we see? A true epitaph, perhaps, for that lost generation.

Picture (by Rob Wilkinson) shows Rory Nolan who plays James O'Neil. ​

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