Author: Sebastian Faulks
Adapter: Rachel Wagstaff
Director: Alastair Whatley
Reviewer: Bill Avenell
The horror and futility of the 1st WW is a harrowing subject of course, so this is not a production for the faint hearted because it does succeed in portraying that horror and futility through its story of a young army officer battling his way through the Somme and Amiens (much of this set underground with the ‘sappers’), learning the intricacies of command and comradeship, accompanied by flashbacks to the memory of a doomed love affair with an older French woman immediately before the conflict.
Doesn’t sound much fun? Well it isn’t but it is rewarding and superbly well crafted, first of all by Rachel Wagstaff in her skilful adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ best seller and then by a very impressive production from the Original Theatre Company. It is a tribute to the OTC, and the director Alastair Whatley in particular, that two of the best productions I have seen in the past year have been this one and a really engaging performance of Three Men in a Boat. From the sublime to the ridiculous indeed. As in Three Men in a Boat Whatley has the help of an inspired set from Victoria Spearing which manages to convey very cleverly a number of different scenes, from the French drawing room to the sappers tunnel under the front line, achieved with minimum scene changing very slickly by the cast keeping subtly in character throughout. He also has the help of excellent sound and lighting effects from Dominic Bilkey and Alex Wardle (lots of bangs and flashes at the front but in no way overdone) and some atmospheric musical direction involving both live and recorded music from Tim Van Eyken.
With this set up behind him Whatley has a head start in getting the best out of his cast and not one of them disappoints. Jonathan Smith had a very short entry in the programme which will very soon be very much longer if he keeps this sort of performance up. As Stephen Wraysford he portrayed the idealistic and then increasingly cynical young officer to perfection. Good he was, ably supported by Sarah Jayne Dunn as Isabelle and later Poppy Roe as her sister Jeanne but his performance was matched by Tim Treloar’s portrayal of the sapper Jack Firebrace, battalion clown, supportive colleague and grieving father, all rolled into one outstanding performance. But the rest of the cast had their moments too; Arthur Bostrom’s (Berard) boring family retainer, Polly Hughes’ (Lizette) adolescent with a crush on Wraysford, Liam McCormick’s (Arthur) best mate, Charlie Hawkins’ (Tipper)under agesoldier, and a very perceptive performance by Malcolm James as both the ruthless industrialist Azaire and the sympathetic Captain Gray.
Birdsong was hugely enjoyable, far more than had been expected bearing in mind the harrowing subject matter. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book, go and see it for, as my companion remarked, ‘a strangely uplifting evening’.
Birdsong runs at The Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford until Saturday 2nd March.