Writer: Rachel Wagstaff from the book by Sebastian Faulks
Directors: Alistair Whatley and Charlotte Peters
Reviewer: James Garrington
Birdsong as a novel is something of an epic. It stretches to over 500 pages, covering a period of many years and several generations. Compressing all of this into a two-hour stage play would seem to be an enormous challenge, and Rachel Wagstaff has succeeded admirably with her adaptation. It could never be possible to include all of the intricacies and nuances of the plot – indeed some large sections have been omitted entirely – yet Wagstaff has managed to distil the essence of the story and the characters to produce a play which is extremely watchable.
Set largely during the second half of the Great War Birdsong has a central character in Stephen Wraysford, a young Lieutenant in the trenches. Seriously injured, he is reminded of a woman he loved and has lost, and, in a series of flashbacks, we are taken back to 1910 and a house in Amiens where Wraysford is lodging with factory-owner Rene and his beautiful wife Isabelle, with whom he embarks on a dangerous affair – an affair that will affect Wraysford for years to come.
Tom Kay takes us on Wraysford’s emotional journey well. When we first meet him it’s 1916. He’s in the trenches, emotionally repressed and unable to relate to his men – stiff and uptight, he’s not a character that you can warm to easily and you wonder if there is any spark of humanity in him. Moving back to 1910 we see a Wraysford who is far more personable, though still with a sense of the stiff formality that was the norm in that period before he shows us some real emotion as events finally become too much for him at the end of the play.
Contrasting well with the formal Wraysford is Tim Treloar’s Jack Firebrace, whose love of life and love of his family is evident throughout. Firebrace embodies the comradeship that was essential for maintaining morale during the horrors of the trenches. Caring more for others than for himself, he carries on stoically enduring his own tragedies as one by one he loses the people around him. Alongside him are his fellow tunnellers, Evans (Riley Carter) and Arthur (Simon Lloyd), a trio who work together and look out for each other, each of them their own character but sharing a common bond in the dangers they face together. There is good work here too from Alfie Browne-Sykes as Tipper, a boy who lied about his age to join up, full of initial bravado yet totally unprepared for what he would face when he arrived in the trenches.
In a play where much of the focus is around the life of the soldiers, Madeleine Knight does a creditable job in the role of Isabelle. Although in many ways Isabelle is a fairly pivotal character, little time is devoted to the developing relationship between her and Wraysford but we do get a good sense of her as a wife in an abusive marriage before we are hit with the reality of life as a civilian in an occupied country, and what people find they have to do to survive.
With a striking set by Victoria Spearing, atmosphere is added by some very effective lighting (Alex Wardle) and some often haunting music provided on stage primarily by James Findlay, which adds an extra dimension to proceedings. This tour of Birdsong marks the centenary of the end of the First World War. As a piece of theatre, it is memorable and effective and very nicely done indeed.
Runs Until 23 June 2018 | Image: Jack Ladenberg