Birdsong – Derby Theatre

Writer:Rachel Wagstaff from the book bySebastian Faulks

Directors: Alistair Whatley and Charlotte Peters

Reviewer: Dave Smith

Sebastian Faulks’ 1993 novel is something of a modern classic and this stage adaptation, originally seen at the Comedy Theatre in 2010, is now being brought to a wider audience via a major national tour timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, around and in which it is set.

As the world heads towards the unimaginable horrors of the ‘Great War’, Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay), a young Englishman learning about the textile industry in Amiens in France, begins an affair with Isabelle Azaire (Madeline Knight), the wife of his host (Martin Carroll), who has been beating her. When M.Azaire discovers their secret, the couple flee together.

Forward a few years and Wraysford is a lieutenant in the WWI trenches. Isabelle left him without explanation and now he seemingly has little concern for his own safety or wellbeing and struggles to connect with the troops under his command. Among those under his watch is a group of sappers, tasked with the dangerous responsibility of digging tunnels towards the German lines, one of whom, Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar), saves his life after one of the tunnels collapses.

After surviving the carnage of the Somme, Wraysford finally heads back to Amiens in search of Isabelle, determined to discover why she left him.

Faulks’ lengthy novel has been sensibly and very skillfully adapted by Rachel Wagstaff, leaving out a strand set in the 1970s in which the main protagonist’s granddaughter learns of his experiences via his journals. What we are left with is a non-linear, but still absorbing and often moving combination of doomed romance and the horrors of war that almost, but not quite, satisfies on every level.

Where this version of the play falls down slightly is that Wraysford is too much of a cold fish to really engage with or care about, and there is very little sense of enough chemistry between Tom Kay and Madeline Knight to suggest the level of obsessive passion that would cause them to behave the way they do (far more interesting is the relationship between Wraysford and Isabelle’s sister Jeanne, played by Liz Garland).

On the other hand, the elements featuring the sappers are superb, perfectly capturing the bonds and comradeship that extreme circumstances can forge. If Kay/Wraysford is hard to like, Tim Treloar as Jack Firebrace provides the true heart and soul to the play, well supported by Simon Lloyd as his best mate, Arthur Shaw. It’s their part of the story that delivers the real emotional punch to the proceedings.

Also superb are the technical elements: Victoria Spearing’s beautiful set turns from French village to WWI trench to underground tunnel, sometimes with just the addition or removal of a few small items, but always assisted by Alex Wardle’s inspired lighting. The moment at the end of the first Act, when the troops prepare to climb the ladders to walk across No-Man’s Land at the Somme, sees all the positive elements of this smart production come together in gripping fashion.

There’s no shortage of World War I themed drama and, while Birdsong may not be a classic of the genre – so much of what made the novel so unique and so loved has, by necessity, had to be cut – this is nevertheless a more than worthy addition to the list.

Runs Until 16 June 2018 and on tour | Image: Jack Ladenberg

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