DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Birdsong – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Writer: Rachel Wagstaff (adapted from the novel by Sebastian Faulks)

Directors: Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters

Designer: Victoria Spearing

Lighting: Alex Wardle

Sound: Dominic Bilkey

Reviewer: Janet Jepson

Any mention of the First World War, otherwise known as the Great War, evokes in most people a sense of waste. All those young, often underage, innocent lives lost needlessly; swathes of beautiful French countryside turned ruinously into bloody acres of mud and war detritus; the bodies, minds and very beings of “survivors” shattered beyond hope, with their loved ones struggling to comprehend the changes brought about by what was seen and experienced in the hell of the battlefields. All this for what? Nothing of any worth was gained by either side, and the repercussions of the horrors lived on for generations.

Sebastian Faulks tried to capture this life-changing waste in all its forms in his novel Birdsong written in the early 1990s. His lead character Stephen Wrayford is introduced as a young ambitious apprentice in the textile trade, spending time in France to learn new ways of doing business. In the process he falls into a passionate relationship with his host’s young wife Isabelle, and following discovery they flee to a small village, where carpentry work and a small cottage seem idyllic. However, Isabelle deserts him, and we next meet Stephen, now a hardened version of himself, in officer’s uniform fighting in the trenches. The wartime horrors described in the book are palpable, and none of this is lost in the stage version of the story. Rachel Wagstaff, the playwright, extensively researched both Faulks’ novel and the First World War, actually visiting all the places mentioned. The sense of hopelessness, waste and sheer physical and mental claustrophobia is captured onstage, drawing the audience into the horror of it all. 

The set is bleak, with a skyline dominated by a wooden cross above a roughly hewn trench side, and narrow tunnel entrances. Side flats slide in to provide cosy inside scenes in the Amiens mansion where Stephen meets Isabelle, while a bed and medical paraphernalia appear in the hospital scenes. The action throughout the play switches between life in the trenches and snatches of Stephen’s earlier, “normal”, life in Isabelle’s husband’s home. The opening scene captures the men relaxing in the war: innocent and eager young men, war-weary older chaps, and non-military tunnellers brought in from digging London Underground at rates of pay higher than soldiers. Jack Firebrace, perfectly played by Tim Treloar, is one such tunneller, a rough guy with a heart of gold who saves officer Stephen from certain death in a pile of corpses discarded over a wall. Tom Kay takes the role of Stephen, portraying a very dashing officer and desirable lover, who can convincingly be tender and loving, then cruel and heartless. His total lack of concern for Jack’s dying young son at home, and his treatment of a young, terrified recruit, is completely at odds with his love affair with Isabelle and the generosity he shows to her stepchildren.

Madeline Knight as Isabelle is a true temptress in her red velvet gown, and Olivia Bernstone and Alfie Browne-Sykes are annoyingly infantile as her stepchildren of unspecified age. The latter actor does however double as the young terrified recruit Tipper, who is heart-breakingly only 15 years old, misses his mother, and cannot face the tension of the attack, turning his pistol on himself. Such shocking details are what makes this play so utterly poignant and heart-rending. The scene at the end of the first act is of “going over the top” in attack of the enemy, and although in slow motion and very reminiscent of the famous Blackadder portrayal, is utterly moving. A vast line of innocent souls walked to certain death … Throughout the play there are snatches of violin music played by one of the soldiers, actor James Findley, creating a haunting pathos that sends shivers up the spines of the audience.

This is a play that should be seen. So much has been written about the First World War; so many films, documentaries and dramas have been made; but to see a stage depiction is somehow special. This is a snapshot of a small group of people devastated by the war, what of all the other thousands? Why did it happen? How can mankind be so cruel? This production is not a true depiction of the novel, which actually spans three generations, but it concentrates on the real core of the story, with love, hate and passion at its heart. We hope that events like this can never be repeated, thereby the grace of God and all that – but we feel eternal compassion for those who had to experience the horrors.

Runs until 17 February 2018 | Image: Contributed

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Disturbingly poignant

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  1. I did enjoy the play and thought Tim Treolar and many other cast members were superb. However, I did not find Tom Kay at all convincing. From his opening lines which were barely audible he seemed wooden and lacking any sort of emotion. The final scenes were a little more convincing, but I am afraid his poor acting rather spoiled the evening for my husband and I.

  2. With respect, I think you may be missing the point. It appears to me that this is not ‘wooden acting’ but rather the powerful portrayal of one who is emotionally flattened by his experiences ( not to mentioon his life of abandonment and adoption prior to the war) – and in this I felt Tom Kay did an excellent job.

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