Writer: Sebastian Faulks adapted by Rachel Wagstaff
Adaptor: Rachel Wagstaff
Directors: Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
At the conclusion of Rachel Wagstaff’ s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong a character opines that future generations will be unaware of the horror of the first World War. As the audience entering The Quays Theatre at The Lowry gets a fine view of the Imperial War Museum North just over the water, whose ‘shattered globe’ design is intended as a reminder of the destructive impact of war, this hope seems forlorn.
Prior to the commencement of World War 1 Stephen Wraysford ( Tom Kay) had an affair with Isabelle Azaire(Madeleine Knight) who was in an abusive marriage . The end of the affair left Stephen emotionally withdrawn and he struggles to make a connection with the men he must lead during the war. Stephen’s fate becomes intertwined with that of Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar) whose love of life is apparent to all and makes him essential in maintaining the tattered morale of the company.
In adapting Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong to the stage Rachel Wagstaff has made a number of crucial decisions. The story has been streamlined with a section set in the 1970’s eliminated altogether. At times this streamlined approach makes for some clunky expositions with scenes being described rather than shown and a workers’ riot that is over in seconds. In the main, however, Wagstaff’s stark approach pays dividends particularly at the end of Act One which seems set to conclude on a rare sentimental note only to shift at the last moment to a mood of utter horror.
Victoria Spearing’s set is highly adaptable changing in seconds from the trenches to a café to the rendezvous for the lovers. Mostly, however, it looks like hell has burst through into the earth with a broken fence forming a graveyard cross towering ominously over the whole scene. The opening sets the mood for the entire play as a cheerful sing-along is blasted into silence by a sudden explosion. It sets the atmosphere of one in which camaraderie goes hand-in-hand with sudden pointless death. Dominic Bilkey’s sound designs, at times so loud as to make the seats vibrate, ensure the audience gets the full intimidating impact of the hellish noise of the conflict.
Although Birdsong is marketed as a tragic love story the central relationship in the play is between the emotionally withdrawn Wraysford and Firebrace’s life-force. Tom Kay plays Wraysford with a barely-restrained hysteria as though he has seen so much he can no longer be horrified and is constantly on the edge of losing control. Tim Treloar carries the humanity of the play. A decent man and a loving father and husband in an obscene situation Firebrace is forced to carry on just so that others do not lose hope. It is a heart-breaking performance.
The current tour is the final time that this production of Birdsong will be staged. But then there is always Charlotte Gray …
Runs until 7th April 2018 | Image: