THIS year marks the centenary of the First World War and the last opportunity to see one of the dramatic recreations of that terrible conflict that have been staged over the past four years, writes Stuart Flitton.
Arguably one of the finest novels set in that war is Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, published in 1993 and adapted for the stage by the young playwright Rachel Wagstaff. That play, which was first directed by Trevor Nunn in the West End in 2010, is running this week at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking.
Perhaps it is First World War fatigue, but on opening night the audience was relatively sparse. This is a pity because Birdsong, directed by Alastair Whately with Charlotte Peters, is an engrossing emotional rollercoaster.
It is also a very “filmic” productions, with lifelike sounds of explosions (do read the warnings on the doors) and action that takes you right into the trenches and the tunnels that are an integral part of this story.
I did have quibbles – with the rather odd ducking in space to indicate characters entering and exiting a small doorway in the trenches, the oddly slow-paced Act 1 and some emotions projected at super-stiff-upper-lift levels.
In fact, Act 1 ends with a “going over the top” tableaux that has been seen several times before.
But Act II picks up the story – and the pace – as the building blocks of Act I fall into place.
For those who haven’t yet seen the play, read the book or seen the TV adaptation that starred Eddie Redmayne, Birdsong is set in France, where of young Englishman, Wraysford (Tom Kay) has a passionate and dangerous affair with Isabelle Azaire (Madeleine Knight) that turns their worlds upside down. Back on the battlefield, Stephen must lead his men through the carnage of the Somme and through the sprawling tunnels deep underground. In the horror of the war, he clings to thoughts of Isabelle and their idyllic life as his world literally explodes around him.
Both lead actors are excellent with the poignant arc of their story set against the horror of the battlefield.
Tim Treloar was riveting as the bluff Jack Firebrace and the banter and cameraderie with Arthur Shaw (Simon Lloyd) in the face of tragic news from home was very moving.
The production is of the highest quality with set, sound and lighting all combining to pull you into the action. The touch of occasional songs, led by fold singer James Findly, who also plays soldier Cartwright musician is a deft touch that adds to the atmosphere.
Birdsong is at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, from 26-31 March; the NST Campus, Southampton, from 16-21 April; and The Capitol, Horsham from 23-28 April as well as other venues and dates later in the year.