Sebastian Faulks’ modern classic seems the most densely unstageable of novels.
Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation, however, brings it beautifully, compellingly to life before our very eyes on a tour which reaches Horsham this week.
Of course, there is added poignancy from the fact that this year sees the centenary of the armistice which closed the First World War.
But even without the anniversary, this is a remarkable piece of stagecraft, lit to perfection and very, very cleverly done indeed, Stephen’s pre-war love affair with Isabelle now told in a series of flashbacks as he finds a reason to live again, battling back from injury in the trenches.
Tom Kay’s Stephen is a performance which grows and grows. At times, early on, it is just too understated to be easily audible, but as the story grips, Kay is quietly commanding as a young man who has loved and incomprehensibly lost and now faces himself facing the even more incomprehensible horrors of trench warfare.
The cast also makes us care for the soldiers he leads, Tim Treloar outstanding as Jack Firebrace, a salt-of-the-earth simple soul facing his own personal loss and determined to do anything for his commander.
Madeleine Knight is also excellent as Isabelle, the woman who entrances Stephen in their pre-war encounter, a stoic mother enduring the beatings of her husband until she gives in to the release that Stephen can offer… only, mysteriously, to change her mind.
Elsewhere, here and there, some of the French accents are wildly variable, but maybe it hardly matters in a piece of theatre so all-enveloping, a tale which pulls us in powerfully and doesn’t let us go for a moment until the heart-breaking words which conclude it.
For other stories by Phil, see: https://www.chichester.co.uk/author/Phil.Hewitt2