Writer: Rachel Wagstaff, from the book by Sebastian Faulks
Director: Alastair Whatley
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The Western Front. 1916. Two men come together. One, the deeply religious sapper, Jack Firebrace, has just completed a 15 hour shift digging tunnels towards the enemy for mines to be laid in. On sentry duty, he receives a letter from home telling him his son is very ill with diphtheria. He is found asleep by the other: the young, eccentric, Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford. Wraysford is distracted and does not court martial Firebrace. Wraysford is injured underground and as he recuperates, we see, in flashback, his life immediately before the war.
An orphan, the younger Wraysford is sent to live in Amiens with the Azaire family to learn how they manage their factory. The factory owner, Rene, is an older man now on his second marriage to the much younger Isabelle. He mistreats both her and his workers and Isabelle and Wraysford form an alliance, ultimately becoming lovers. But it does not end well and Wraysford clings to her memory while in the trenches. After a period buried underground with Firebrace, Wraysford seeks out Isabelle to find she now has a different life, one that no longer includes him.
On entering the theatre, one can’t help but be impressed by the atmosphere generated by the set as it is wreathed in smoke; dirty, and shabby. However, Victoria Spearing’s design is too complex, and despite the use of lighting and sound to establish locations, it never quite works, so we can’t ignore the tunnel entrance and makeshift crosses of the front when watching events in Amiens, nor can we overlook the shabby walls of the town when underground with the sappers. This is a case of less could well be more. Nevertheless, the transitions between “present day” at the front and the flashbacks are smooth. The story-telling is efficient, if a little slow at times. But the main criticism of this production is that we never really care about the characters. One feels that the action of the book may have been transferred to the stage but that the depth of characterisation has not; these characters are struggling in desperate situations but it is entirely unmoving, even when, towards the end of the first act, there is a moment just before the whistles blow and the men go over the top that should have the audience gasping and wiping away a tear … but it simply passes. Most of the cast play multiple characters, which can be off-putting: Isabel’s step-daughter who makes him uncomfortable by attempting to seduce him through blackmail is played by the same actress (Polly Hughes) as later plays a prostitute to whom Wraysford turns. Overall, the characters just don’t seem to have enough at stake.
At the centre of it all are the performances of Jonathan Smith as Wraysford and Sarah Jayne Dunn as Isabelle. Smith’s voice remains at the same pitch, except when shouting, throughout, it’s not obvious why, for example, he is obsessed with fortune-telling. Dunn never really communicates the quiet desperation of being trapped in a violent, loveless marriage neither does Tim Treloar’s Firebrace communicate his turmoil as he turns away from God following his boy’s illness. However, the Azaire’s family friend, Berard, played largely for laughs and with camp glee by Arthur Bostrom, provides welcome light relief; Berard truly lights up the stage when he enters.
Faulks himself says that when asked about a stage adaptation, “My first reaction … was ‘Why try to make a painting from a sculpture?’”. While there may well be a painting to be made from Faulks’ sculpture, this evening’s lightweight offering, while entertaining, is not yet an old master.