Rachel Wagstaff has gamely adapted Sebastian Faulks’ sprawling, nearly 500 page novel Birdsong, into a two hour 20 minute stage play. First seen in the West End in 2010, it’s now, in its revised form, on its timely fourth and final UK tour, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war.
This version, unlike the West End original has had a structural overhaul. The play flashes from past to present, love to war. To Wraysford’s life in 1910 in Amiens, where as a young man, he is in France to study the textile industry at the factory of René Azaire. Where he meets and falls in love with René’s much younger wife Isabelle and to 1914-16, the Somme and Wraysford’s life on the French frontline.
While the ill-fated love story between Isabelle and Stephen constitutes a major plotline, it is rendered somewhat wishy-washy in comparison to the war scenes, the chemistry between Wraysford (Tom Kay) and Isabelle (Madeleine Knight) lacking any spark. That this ice-cold pair could ever warm up to passion just doesn’t convince.
It is at its most gripping when it concentrates on the stories of the young men in the trenches. Enough time is given to develop a backstory for each and as a result the audience are emotionally invested in their fates: Sapper Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar) catapulted from a life digging tunnels for the London Underground to a life digging trenches for the British Army, under-age Tipper (Alfie Browne-Sykes) traumatised by the day-today reality of warfare and ever-chipper Welsh farm boy Evans (Riley Carter) hiding secrets behind the smile.
The set, sound and lighting design add much to the viewing experience and bring the audience closer to the action and the action is enhanced by folk musician James Findlay’s plaintive punctuation of the action.
A play about the horrors of war is always a hard sell, and while this reviewer remains to be convinced of this newest production, in focussing on the human beings behind the gunfire, makes it a gripping, timely and ultimately moving story that deserves to be seen.
This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub