by Sebastian Faulks adapted by Rachel Wagstaff.
Tour to 3 August 2013.
Runs 2hr 40min One interval.
Review: Alan Geary: 17 June at Theatre Royal Nottingham.
Strengths and weaknesses in a moving adaptation of the best-selling novel .
Birdsong is an adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ best-selling novel. Like the book it weaves a personal love story into the phenomenon of the Great War, in particular the Battle of the Somme; the modern section of the novel, the weakest bit, is wisely omitted. Unlike the novel, which begins in Amiens in 1910, the play starts in the trenches in 1916, returning to Amiens in flashbacks.
Tim Treloar’s Jack Firebrace, the other-ranks tunneller – each side is attempting to tunnel under the other’s trench system – is a terrific performance. Continually scratching himself for lice, he’s a complex character: rough, loyal, long-suffering, and genuinely artistic. Jonathan Smith is properly buttoned-up and understated as Stephen Wraysford. Sarah Jayne Dunn as Isabelle looks suitably fetching; importantly, in the novel she’s older than Stephen, but not, apparently, here.
There are weaknesses. The adaptation allows a ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ to creep in, surely an anachronism. It’s also an error to have French people talking to each other in English with slightly stage French accents. And two enemy soldiers converse in German/English that sounds straight out of a war comic. The ruins, trenches and barbed-wire set, ideal for the war scenes, is no good for the pre-war domestic scenes. When Wraysford arrives in Amien in 1910 and tells Isabelle “You’ve got a lovely home” they’re surrounded by rubble and destruction. There’s the associated problem, that Stephen is in uniform instead of civvies four years before he joins up.
Tragic and pathetic music-hall songs, sung by the other ranks, greatly enrich the production. So does Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, particularly during the choreographed main love scene. In a play like this a violin can speak. Also heart-breaking is the dramatic irony: the strained optimism before men go over the top on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, for instance. It’s particularly telling when the enemy soldier who shares the reconciliation at the end just happens to be Jewish as well as German.
The novel is very fine, if over-rated. Directed by Alistair Whatley, this stage adaptation moved the Nottingham audience and will move others.
Stephen Wraysford: Jonathan Smith.
Isabelle Azaire: Sarah Jayne Dunn.
Adams/Berard/Barclay: Arthur Bostrum.
Tipper/Gregoire: Charlie G Hawkins.
Brennan/Orderly: Joshua Higgott.
Lisette Azaire: Polly Hughes.
Rene Azaire/Captain Gray: Malcolm James.
Arthur Shaw/Lamm: Liam McCormack.
Jeanne Fourmentiere: Poppy Roe.
Marguerite: Emily Stride.
Jack Firebrace: Tim Treloar.
Evans/Levi: Tim Van Eyken.
Director: Alistair Whatley.
Designer: Victoria Spearing.
Lighting: Alex Wardle.
Sound: Dominic Bilkey.
Music: Tim Van Eyken.
24-29 June Mon-Sat 7.45pm Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm Cambridge Arts Theatre 01223 503333 www.cambridgeartstheatre.com
1-6 July 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm Oldham Coliseum 0161 624 2829 www.coliseum.org.uk
8-13 July 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm Theatre Royal Norwich 01603 630000 www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk
15-20 July 8pm Mat Thu 2.30pm Sat 4.45pm Theatre Royal Windsor 01753 853888 www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk
22-28 July 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm Milton Keynes Theatre 0844 871 7652 www.atgtickets.com/venues/milton-keynes-theatre
29 July-3 Aug 7.45pm Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm Theatre Royal Brighton 0844 871 7650 www.atgtickets.com/venues/theatre-royal-brighton