Sebastian Faulks’ bestselling 1993 novel Birdsong has been brought to the stage thanks to playwright Rachel Wagstaff, who was famously persistent in her pursuit of the staging rights. Directed by Trevor Nunn, no stranger to epic literary adaptations, it premiered at London’s Comedy Theatre last night (28 September 2010, previews from 18 September).

Part of Faulks’ trilogy which also comprises The Girl at the Lion d'Or and Charlotte Gray, Birdsong centres on Stephen Wraysford (played by Ben Barnes) who, while staying as the guest of a factory owner in pre-war France, embarks on a passionate affair with Isabelle, the wife of his host. A few years later Stephen finds himself back in the area, but this time as a soldier at the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest encounter in British military history. As his men die around him, Stephen turns to his enduring love for Isabelle for the strength to continue.

Barnes is joined in the principal cast by Genevieve O'Reilly (best known as Sarah Caulfield in TV’s Spooks) as love interest Isabelle, Nicholas Farrell as Rene Azaire, Iain Mitchell as Berard, Lee Ross as Jack Firebrace and Zoe Waites as Jeanne.

Did Wagstaff’s persistence pay off?

  • Michael Coveney on (four stars) - "Trevor Nunn and the writer of this stage version, Rachel Wagstaff, have brilliantly distilled a three-hour play without losing the density of the subject matter or the poetry of the story ... Nunn and his ingenious designer, John Napier, have conjured a superb, fast-moving show of projections, terrifying sonic effects and, especially, full-on camaraderie ... Barnes, like Wraysford himself, leads from the front, ably supported by Nicholas Farrell as both the cuckolded husband and a Scottish general, luminous Zoe Waites as Isabelle's sister, bearing a message of hope, and, especially, the outstanding Lee Ross as the charismatic tunneler Jack Firebrace ... I'm sure, one day, the book will become a great film; for the moment, it is undoubtedly a great theatrical triumph."

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - "Wagstaff's version retains many of the novel's intriguing elements: its concern with class, its sense of war as an exercise in blinkered bureaucracy, its depiction of an early-20th century crisis of masculinity. It's poetic, too, and beautiful in places, thanks to John Napier's clever designs … Besides Barnes, there are skilful performances from Zoe Waites, Nicholas Farrell, Genevieve O'Reilly, and above all Lee Ross as Jack, a tunnel-digger with a quirky music hall sensibility. Yet whereas the novel is often claustrophobic, here there is less visceral immediacy. Events are narrated when they really need to be dramatised. The result is too rhetorical: we're told what we ought to be shown."

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - "Sebastian Faulks has said that transposing a novel to another medium is like trying to turn a painting into a sculpture. I agree with that. But at least, in the case of Rachel Wagstaff's stage version of Faulks's celebrated 1993 novel, it is a very good sculpture … Ben Barnes conveys the essential loneliness of Stephen kept in ignorance of the child he has fathered. Genevieve O'Reilly as his lost lover, Zoe Waites as her consoling sister and Nicholas Farrell as a pipe-smoking, Thucydides-reading captain also invest their roles with the right weight. This is not the whole of Faulks's book; nor can it be. But, in the space of three hours, it gives us an effective summation of the story and captures both the pain and the pity of a war that almost defies comprehension."

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) - "Sometimes one wishes the theatre would leave great novels alone. Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong is such a haunting and harrowing book, and lives so vividly in the mind's eye of the reader, that seeing it on stage is initially at least a deeply disappointing experience ... Barnes, best known as Prince Caspian in the Narnia films, finally finds some of the darkness of the troubled hero, caught between despair at the horror around him and sudden fierce shafts of compassion for his men, but his performance needs to deepen still further … My advice would be to stay at home and read the novel, or better yet, a collection of the great poems written by Owen, Sassoon and others who actually served in the First World War."

  • Libby Purves in The Times (three stars) - "His play - for it must be judged as such - bears a weight of expectation ... We have heard how Rachel Wagstaff begged for permission, how Trevor Nunn took it on, how the cast wept when shown the model-box of the terrible deep tunnels in the set by the designer, John Napier. That's a lot to live up to ... Ben Barnes takes this on with courage and conviction, but the script doesn't help. The prewar scenes are low key, funny at times, lushly romantic in love soliloquies. Unfortunately, the adaptor's extreme respect for Faulks' prose means that Wraysford is constantly narrating ... Wraysford's last lines resound. 'We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts'. They did. That some told their stories is a grim and necessary blessing. The same goes for the play."

    - Catherine Love