Esther Docherty reviews the stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s heartwrenching tale of wartime romance.
To commemorate the centenary of the First World War, and following the success of the 2013 production, Rachel Wagstaff’s stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ 1994 novel Birdsong embarked on a nationwide tour earlier this year. The play travels throughout the country until the 5 July, including a visit to the University’s very own Northcott Theatre between 6 and 10 May.
The play, directed by Alastair Whatley, takes an unusual approach by using flashbacks to present the novel’s complicated seven part narrative. It opens with sapper Jack Firebrace, played by Peter Duncan, larking around with fellow tunnelers before the sound of bombing overhead brings them back to the reality of the front line in France, 1916. The audience are not eased gently into the action; the ferocious sound effects and ominous staging bring them straight into the war setting. In an event which takes place in the second part of the novel, Firebrace falls asleep whilst on watch, and is woken by the mysterious Captain Wraysford.
Wraysford’s story is told through flashbacks after a near fatal injury which sends him into a dream-like state. The flashbacks were handled well by actor George Banks, who had the task of demonstrating the changes in time purely by re-enacting (or waking up from) the shooting which rendered him unconscious. This worked well to break up the gritty war narrative with the forbidden romance of Stephen and Isabelle Azaire, played by Carolin Stoltz; however it did detract from the development of Stephen’s character, as the full extent of the past which accounts for his strange and cold behaviour is withheld from the audience if they had not read the novel.
The most affecting part of the play was the relationship between the sappers and soldiers, who after a hostile start develop a warm camaraderie. The youngest, Tipper, played by Hollyoaks’ Johnny Clarke was particularly brilliant.
As would be expected in a stage adaptation, the novel’s long battle sequences were cut, instead with the focus being on the relationships behind the trenches. The ending was brilliantly moving, with Banks deliberately looking into the audience as he delivered Stephen’s final lines, telling how soldiers would keep quiet about their experience so that no generation would ever have to know what was suffered. As members of the audience know that the Second World War would soon follow, this ending was a suitably challenging and poignant way to mark the centenary.
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