Writer: Rachel Wagstaff from the book by Sebastian Faulks
Director: Alastair Whatley
Following 2010’s West End hit, Rachel Wagstaff’s re-adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong (ranked 13th in the 2003 BBC survey The Big Read) marks the very first touring production of the play to over 22 venues across the UK. So here it is at Milton Keynes this week. How fortunate we are.
It is just before the Great War and in France the young Englishman Stephen Wraysford begins a passionate and dangerous liaison with Isabelle, his host Renee’s wife. Set against the background of the Western front, this ‘tres intime’ tale of passionate love and sacrifice tells how Stephen discovers that he must move from his poetic and happy existence in Amiens to lead men through the carnage of the Somme and the web of channels that lie below. He is confronted by the most appalling and horrific events and in dealing with these he forgets, but tries to hold on to, his memories of his beloved.
The cast of just twelve bring immense emotion to their performances. Jonathan Smith, in his first major rôle, gives a solid and convincing portrayal of Stephen Wraysford, more particularly when we see him in the trenches and we feel his dilemmas as he attempts to be a good leader/soldier for his men. His rapport with Isabelle is sometimes less convincing though is more so in the second part of the piece. Tim Treloar completely captures the desperate mental and physical struggles of a soldier at war, of comradeship and his feelings for his loved ones back home. His relationship with Arthur, brought to us so impeccably by Liam McCormick, is utterly believable. Sarah Jayne Dunn. really works hard to show us how the suffering Isabelle copes with her cruel husband, her place in the village as well as the passion she has for Wraysford, but her rapport with the latter does not always work nor does it always seem passionate. Charlie G Hawkins gives a surprisingly mature performance as Tipper while his Gregoire is understated. We are taken back to ‘Allo Allo’ with Arthur Bostrom’s mayor of the village, at once amusing and sinister. Joshua Higgott not only performs Brennan and an orderly well but also has a great singing voice and plays the violin! The remainder of the cast all produce sound portrayals of their respective rôles.
Director Alastair Whatley and designer Victoria Spearing have achieved much with the cast and the very clever and effective set. This Birdsong is a very poignant and moving production, especially the scene just before the interval when many of the audience felt the play was actually over, the sense of silence and powerful emotions being palpable.
A very worthy and informative piece which leaves one in no doubt about the incredible suffering of the Battle of the Somme and trench life.
Runs until: 27 July 13
Picture: Jack Ladenburg