Paul Johnson | 04 May 2018 04:33am
Sebastian Faulks’ classic novel, reflecting the appalling horrors suffered during the First World War – often studied as part of the National Curriculum – has been expertly and passionately adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff. In the centenary year since the end of ‘The Great War’ the touring production, which comes through Bromley’s Churchill Theatre this week, stands as an essential and stark reminder of the sacrifices made by a generation gone by.
By Wagstaff’s own account, after contacting Faulks in 1996 it took over one hundred drafts to settle on the plotlines and characters afforded in a two-hour snippet of theatre – well, the novel is over five hundred pages long featuring a myriad of characters. But credit to her, I’m sure Faulks is more than happy with the end result. First produced eight years ago under the direction of Sir Trevor Nunn, this important touring piece first took to the road four years ago – marking the centenary of the beginning of the horrendous conflict.
Under Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters’ sensitive and faithful direction, and with a striking set design by Victoria Spearing, Wagstaff’s heart-wrenching adaptation immerses us into the Western Front in France throughout the final two years of the war. The soldiers at The Somme who have spent what seems like an eternity waiting to go over the top are integrated with the team of underground tunnellers who were, in turn, dispatched in an attempt to break the stalemate by making secret in-roads under no-man’s land. Experienced ‘tunnel’ men such as Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar), who were more used to digging the London Underground system than fighting, found themselves rubbing shoulders with the front line as they tried to disrupt the German’s own tunnel systems.
Either way, the needless loss of life affected all, with both Firebrace and Capt. Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) perishing underground just before the end of hostilities. The play also flashbacks to 1910 Amiens, France when Wraysford meets and falls in love with Isabelle Azaire (Madeleine Knight), who physically and psycologically also later falls victim to the ravages of war even away from the action.
Wagstaff has successfully found the heart and soul of Faulks’ dramatic masterpiece which is recreated onstage in vivid detail by Dominic Bilkey’s incredible sound design complemented superbly by Alex Wardle’s atmospheric lighting. With memorable and heartbreaking moments including the big push at the end of act one, Firebrace receiving letters describing his 8-year-old son’s bout of Diphtheria and subsequent tragic death – which the tunneller is helpless to act upon – to young Tipper’s (Alfie Browne-Sykes) terror-stricken suicide at the front line just as the troops prepare to advance into no man’s land – a point made even more horrific when we discover the young man is really only fifteen years old, having lied to the enlisting officers so he could sign up. Some adventure!
Whether you’re studying the First World War at school/college or not, Birdsong is so much more than a night out at the theatre. It provides an opportunity to gain an understanding of the merest slice of what our ancestors went through one hundred years ago. And I don’t apologise for omitting any particular performance plaudits, suffice to say, this is a truly heroic production.
More at: www.birdsongthetour.com
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- : 01/05/2018