To commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War, Rachel Wagstaff's adaptation of Sebastian Faulk's epic novel Birdsong is touring the country, this week stopping at the Birmingham Rep. I knew very little about the novel, apart from it being set around the First World War and the length of the book, and so was pleasantly surprised when I found the plot (which jumps time periods) fairly easy to follow. Along with great performances from all the cast, it provides an enjoyable yet thought provoking evening at the theatre.
The action seamlessly switches between the trenches of the Western Front in the First World War between 1916 and 1918, and Amiens, France in 1910, telling the individual stories of those in the trenches and the tangled love affair that the lieutenant experienced and then revisits after the Somme.
George Banks plays Stephen Wraysford (the lieutenant) with power. It's due to his command of his physicality and range in performance that the audience initially know that the time has shifted. Banks is able to flick the imaginary switch from the current, hardened lieutenant to the naïve civilian with ease to tell his story and to bring the audience close to tears by the end.
Former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan is another stand out performer playing Jack Firebrace, a miner who has been brought to the trenches to dig, listen and plant mines. Duncan goes from the light-hearted worker to the deeply troubled soul who is affected by the events around him and the ones he can't get to in a deeply charged and emotional performance.
Samuel Martin as Walsh offers some much needed laughter and also provides live music with his stunning violin playing as a backdrop to some scenes. Although some of the French accents jar a bit and the lighting sometimes fails to light faces, making it difficult to see what is happening even in the brighter periods, the whole cast work in sync with each other and play multiple roles to tell the story in a compelling and ultimately heartbreaking way.
The ending of the first half, as well as the closing scenes of the play, are deeply moving. Through the use of Victoria Spearing's set, which effortlessly becomes so many different locations, and the direction of Alastair Whatley, who seems to have got right to the heart of the story, these moments try to bring the realities of war to the audience.
One to experience the feelings of fear and anxiety before going over the top, the other to realise the loss and pointlessness of it all. This is a beautifully crafted show and comes highly recommended.
- Jonathan Wright