Mixed feelings: I so wanted to become totally absorbed in Birdsong which was competently executed on a fantastic atmospheric set but something was missing. Such a shame.
I have not read the book (or seen the TV series) but have to assume Sebastian Faulks’s novel is so beautifully written that playwright Rachel Wagstaff couldn’t resist keeping some of the narrative intact. Unfortunately that leads to characters seemingly posturing while their oration slows the pace.
The adaptation is otherwise sound. Scenes switching between the claustrophobic tunnels deep below Great War enemy lines in blood-soaked France, elegant pre-War Amiens, trenches and bars, tell the story in a stuttering series of episodes and flashbacks. But what was that with the ritualistic dance-y lovemaking scene? Odd.
Newcomer Jonathan Smith (LAMDA graduate 2010; Cut Loose) is a convincing Stephen Wraysford (shame about the oratory) – the young lovestruck officer learning his responsibilities the hard way. His love interest is Sarah Jayne Dunn (Hollyoak’s Mandy) who aloofly enters and exits well but struggles with warmth (and the accent) while Polly Hughes (Swollen) is her feisty step-daughter Lisette (and prostitute).
The very able cast includes many who double and triple up including stalwart Arthur Bostrom (‘Allo ‘Allo!’s Crabtree and more) as a blustering Colonel, pompous Berard and Adams; Charlie G Hawkins (EastEnders, Ali G Indahouse) as a heart-achingly young Tipper and bouncy Gregoire; and Malcolm James (Coronation Street, Heartbeat and plenty on stage) makes a sinister bully Rene Azaire and taciturn Captain Gray.
Tim Treloar (BBC Carleton Hobbs winner) holds it all together as tunnel rat sapper Jack Firebrace whose heart is firmly at home with his sick son although at times his lines are not easy to deliver and remain in character as he holds forth in descriptive prose. New graduate Joshua Higgott plays live violin as Brennan, sings and played the recorded piano pieces and Tim van Eyken is not only spot-on as Evans but plays live accordeon to support many songs of the time, snippets of which add to the atmosphere.
But it is Alex Wardle’s lighting and Victoria Spearing’s set design which steal the show. Stunning.
There is no doubt this is the Great War – the adaptable set becomes the ghastly tunnels, the trenches, bars and drawing room, all the while with the barbed wire and broken fences looming overhead silhouetted against the changing skies and bomb blasts. Excellent