The first thing I have to say to everyone about "Birdsong" is that this is a theatrical adaptation by playwright Rachel Wagstaff on the decades spanning novel by Sebastian Faulks. I have to say here and now that I have not read the original novel, so my review here is purely based on the performances on stage tonight. My fellow reviewer tonight has however read and re-read the original novel and was able to fill me in on many of the gaps that this play by its very time constraints alone has to either leave out or skim over. Just how do you adapt a 500 plus page novel to fit the totally different environment of a stage performance?
For anyone (like me) not familiar with the book, this is a brief recap of the storyline of tonights performance (but not the book itself). We open in the british Army trenches of France in 1916. Stalemate between the two armies has led to the development of underground mine warfare. Specialist tunnellers recruited from specialist civilian jobs such as mining or digging London's underground tunnels have been recruited as non - combat trained specialists to tunnell under the German trenches, plant explosives and blow the enemy to pieces. The problem is that the Germans are doing just the same. It is here right away that we meet tunnellers Jack Firebrace (Peter Duncan), Arthur Shaw (Liam Mccormick), Cartwright / Musician (James Findlay) and Evans (Alastair Whatley). We also meet under age soldier Tipper (Max Bowden), Captain Gray (James Staddon) and our principal character Officer Stephen Wraysford (Edmund Wiseman). Also very briefly to start with but becoming more important later on, we meet jeanne Fourmentier (Isabelle's sister played by Cloudua swann). Against advice Wraysford has asked to see an underground tunnel and in an underground incident is pressumed dead, brought to the surface and simply thrown "over the wall" with the other dead bodies. When Jack goes to view the body he is amazed to find that Wraysford is still alive. The wounded but recouperating Wraysford starts to relive in flashback the events six years earlier that brought him to France and his love affair with the married Isabelle Azaire (E mily Bowker). Isabelle is in an unhappy marriage to a much older man and also step-mother to the not so young now children Lisette (Selma Brook) and Gregoire (played also by Max Bowden). There are of course toher elements to the relationship and also as the soldiers receive letters from home and write letters to home we get to know a little more about their live. We also have towards the end the scene of Wraysford and Jack trapped underground. In the book, this is for six days, but the scene is still powerfull despite its required brevity.
Edmund Wiseman is excellent as the now "damaged" Stephen Wraysford. this is not the over the top performance of someone having real issues accepting the insane situation that they find themselves in, but a gentle charachter performance of someone just about to completely snap at any time. Emily Bowker is also very good as the unhappy and desperate for love wife of the older and brutal factory owner Rene Azaire. In a moment of almost madness, she has an affair and leaves her husband for a man she has only just recently met. Remember, this is 1916 and the world takes a far different view of a woman in her place than it does now. Emily gets that balance of a woman not only given up her marriage and her home but also her personal reputation just right.
Selma Brook aslo puts in a nice character performance as the teenage daughter Lisette who has an immediate crush on Stephen Wraysford and takes the expected reactions to his gentle rebuff of her attentions. Clouda Swann is also interesting as she expands in the second half her role as isobelle's sister Jeanne.
For me though, the star of the show is Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace. Often it seems to be that main supporting characters get far better roles than the principals. The part of Jack has some real depth to it, and through the letters he is receiving and writing (some which contain real personal tragedy news), and the sketches that he is making of people, we get to know a bit about the man and what brought him to the trenches.
There is of course also the "Birdsong". We hear the birdsong at various points in the story and there are to me two possibilities of why it is there, or not there, and I have not made my mind up which is which. Either the birds are singing because everything is alright, or the birds have stopped singing because everything is far from all right and death is about to touch people. During battles, many soldiers commented that the birds left the skies and there was no birdsong.
I have to admit that at times I found the structure of starting at 1916 and going back and forth from resent day to flashbacks a bit disorientating at times. With no previous knowlege of the book and who people were, it took me a while to establish everyones parts. The play also end at an early point without us really knowing what happens to many of our our principal characters after the war.
The programme for tonight clearly states that this is a re-working of the original play. In the original version the starting point of the story (as with the book) was 1910 and followed a more linear timeline to the book. I must admit that i would have preferred that version to allow me to become more aquanted with Isobelle and her family and her scandelous life with Wraysford before the war broke out.
This is still a powerful piece of theatre though and there were many school children in tonights audience. It is important that new generations understand just what happened in the first World War and that every one who took part there was a real person that was forced by circumstances to become far different from anything they could possibly have imagined for themselves.
Go and see a very good piece of theatre with some very good set designs (Victoria Spearing). Do not expect to see a literal adaption of the book if you have read it though. The very different nature of the book and theatre make a straight adaptation pretty much impossible.
Review by Tom King