Birdsong, stage version by Rachel Wagstaff, The Capitol Theatre, Horsham, April 23 (show runs until April 28)
It’s pretty astonishing how powerful stage plays can be.
The correct combination of set design, music, sound effects and acting can bring an entire world, real or imaginary, to life right in front of you.
So with 2018 marking 100 years since the end of the First World War, it seems appropriate that Birdsong attempts to reconstruct that tragic era live for modern audiences.
Based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks and adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff, this production examines several characters who are pulled into the chaos and carnage of ‘the war to end all wars’.
It starts by introducing English sappers Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar) and Arthur Shaw (Simon Lloyd) who spend their days digging tunnels in no man’s land to fill with explosives.
One night Jack accidentally falls asleep on lookout and is caught by his new superior, officer Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay). It looks like Jack is going to get court-martialled but the absent-minded Stephen lets him off the hook.
Stephen demands to see the tunnels that his men have been digging, but is injured during a terrifying underground encounter with the Germans. It looks like Stephen is done for but Jack realises he’s still alive and helps rescue him.
At this point, the story switches focus from Jack to Stephen, as the young officer reflects on his pre-war life and his fiery affair with the beautiful French Isabelle (Madeleine Knight), wife of the cruel factory owner Rene Azaire (Martin Carroll).
As the play progresses, depicting the build-up to, and aftermath of, The Battle of The Somme, the narrative switches between those sunny pre-war memories and the horror of trench warfare.
Birdsong is definitely a challenging production to watch but once you get used to the nonlinear storytelling it becomes a highly rewarding one.
It draws you into its harsh world and reveals a collection of relatable, complex characters who are dealing with extreme circumstances.
At first, Tom Kay portrays Stephen Wraysford as a rather aloof and even callous young man. However, in the flashbacks he reveals his character’s more romantic and caring side, as well as Stephen’s vulnerability and somewhat foolish optimism. Switching back to the war, it becomes clear that his new grim reality has taken its toll on his mind.
Interestingly though, as tragic events unfold, this wartime trauma seems to push Stephen past bitterness and into a place where he forms a genuine emotional bond with his men. It’s something that Tom Kay builds on gradually, culminating in a moment of painfully raw humanity at the end.
Madeleine Knight meanwhile presents a believable love interest as Isabelle Azaire – sophisticated, sensual and intriguing. Stephen and Isabelle become lovers a little too quickly, but the couple’s onstage chemistry is convincing nonetheless.
Isabelle also seems real in her attitude towards the affair. She’s miserable in her marriage, but she also has two children to care for and worries about whether escaping the bonds of matrimony is moral. This comes to the fore in the second act to the point where Isabelle seems trapped once again, this time by her own conscience.
Liz Garland plays a strong female character too in the form of Isabelle’s sister Jeanne. She’s compassionate and stoic and we get a good sense of her inner feelings without her explicitly stating them.
Simon Lloyd is particularly good as Jack’s best mate Arthur. He’s not exactly the brightest of characters but he possesses a sharp emotional intelligence, comforting his friend during a truly devastating moment.
Many of the performers play two roles and it’s a testament to their acting skills that this is almost invisible to the viewer.
Martin Carroll switches easily between the snooty Rene Azaire and the gruff, no-nonsense Captain Gray. Olivia Bernstone is amusing as the excitable and petulant child Lisette and then, later in the play, she gives an unsettling performance as a cynical, exhausted prostitute. Alfie Browne-Sykes plays a child too – the impish Gregoire in the flashback scenes – but is truly memorable as the terrified young recruit Tipper in the wartime scenes.
On a lighter note, Riley Carter gets some of the play’s biggest laughs as cheeky Welsh soldier Evans but also one of the play’s biggest emotional payoffs as German soldier Levi.
The other actors – Jeffrey Harmer as Berard/Barclay, James Findlay as the cartwright/musician, and Alice Brittain as Marguerite – are on fine form as well.
However, it’s arguably Tim Treloar who gives Birdsong’s most memorable performance as Jack.
In early scenes, it seems that he’s pushing the joke-telling, working-class rascal act a little too far.
But it soon starts to feel like the character is using exaggerated cheerfulness to fight against his depressing circumstances. Upon learning that his son is ill (back in England) Jack shows fear, but he holds it just below the surface, only unleashing his frustration in short, sharp bursts.
Acting aside, Birdsong is also one of the most visually and aurally impressive plays I’ve seen.
Scene transitions are handled smoothly with quick lighting and sound changes to indicate the different time periods. Parts of the set open or close swiftly to represent either a stylish country house or a filthy trench.
Of course, a theatrical production will never truly be able to depict the revolting conditions that soldiers had to endure, but Birdsong’s strategic use of low-level lighting (and sometimes almost complete darkness) is highly effective. The tunnel sequences feel claustrophobic and are brutally uncomfortable to watch, especially in the second act when the desperate men writhe through the environment with only a couple of torches to light the way.
But probably the most intense moment arrives towards the end of act one as Stephen and his men prepare to go over the top of the trenches and into battle.
The sound and lighting team ditch the minimalist approach and the theatre almost vibrates with thunderous explosions as the soldiers turn to face those dreadful ladders.
In its attempt at showing a scenario that thousands of soldiers would have experienced it’s frighteningly effective and it contains one of the play’s most shocking moments.
Birdsong has an engaging romance and fascinating characters, but this scene seems to indicate where the play’s true power comes from.
At its core, this is a show that captures the sights and sounds of a catastrophic war, bringing this era back to life 100 years later so that modern audiences will never forget.
To find out more about the Birdsong tour visit birdsongthetour.com.
To see what else is on at The Capitol click here.
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