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Birdsong – New Theatre, Cardiff

Writer: Sebastian Faulks (adapted by Rachel Wagstaff)

Director: Alastair Whatley

Designer: Victoria Spearing

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

[Rating:3]

Sebastian Faulks’ epic tale of courage, sacrifice and love, set amid the carnage of battle and the horror of the trenches of World War I, is given a brand-new adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff in this first-ever touring production of Birdsong. The plot-line follows the fortunes of love and war in the life of a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, who leads his men through the mire of the Battle of the Somme and the sprawling tunnels that lie underground. As all around him his world collapses into chaos, he clings to the memory of his love for the beautiful, but married, Isabelle Azaire.

Wraysford’s character is complex, and requires in depth interpretation which Jonathan Smith, who graduated from LAMDA in 2010, does not appear to have completely mastered. His portrayal of a young Army officer who must follow orders is not quite sufficiently fine-tuned to the anguish of knowing that in doing so most of his men will be killed. Wagstaff has chosen a balletic portrayal of the consummation of the love affair between Wraysford and Isabelle, which – although performed artistically by Smith and Sarah Jayne Dunn, who plays Isabelle – is lacking in raison d’être for the sudden change in format.

The scenes which take place before, during and after and the fighting are well structured, capturing the tense atmosphere among the men in the trenches as they prepare to go over the top and giving insight into the privations endured by the troops. Individual characters are well portrayed, with the odd touches of humour and song which kept the troops from dwelling on the terror of their situation. One characterisation deserves to be singled out – that of Tim Treloar in the rôle of Jack Firebrace, the soldier who Wraysford lets off a court martial when he hears that he has been refused leave to go home to see his eight-year-old son who is dying. Treloar gives a superb performance that is worthy of an accolade. It comes as no surprise to learn that he has had considerable experience with, among others, the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The ensemble cast of The Original Theatre Company whose production this is, together with Birdsong Productions Ltd, give it their best shot. For a young company formed a mere eight years ago, it is a brave choice. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Wagstaff has chosen to leave out whole chunks of Faulks’ novel, and consequently those of the audience who have not read the book inevitably miss many of its finer nuances; particularly in relation to the love affair which spans a world war. While this is in part due to the necessity of reducing a novel that runs to over 500 pages to a two and a half hour play, it might have been better to have given this section a more sequential treatment, rather than jumping backwards and forwards through time and between the mud of the underground tunnels to a French country house.

Having said that, set designer Victoria Spearing is to be complimented on the usage of a single set throughout that manages, by virtue of skilled manipulation, to incorporate both (not to mention a French café) and, importantly, the stark skyline of no-man’s land that divides the British and German lines.

Runs until 23rd February 2013.

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