The tale of ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks has become a well-known story of tragic love in a time of war, being developed from the novel into a West End sensation starring Ben Barnes, and then moving into a television series. Now, director Alastair Whatley presents it once more, produced by the Original Theatre Company, in a tour around the country.
Set in the Western Front of France between 1916 and 1918, the action surrounds Stephen Wraysford, who returns constantly to his time in Amiens in 1910, where his past hides secrets and unravelling incidents. The concept of flashbacks provides a problem for any set designer, yet Victoria Spearing adapted the Yvonne Arnaud’s relatively small stage remarkably, shifting with relative ease between World War I trenches to French houses and rivers. A large stone-arch facade was at home as both warn-worn villages and garden walls, whilst the backdrop of silhouetted wooden planks and grave markers acted as a constant reminder of the present context of the play. Alex Wardle’s lighting enhanced the transitions well, as did the innovation of light used during the underground tunnel scenes.
Flashbacks cause problems for the actors too, having to switch from one emotion to another in very quick succession. Needless to say, the character of Stephen Wraysford is a particularly hard one, frequently moving from desperate, scarred soldier to hopeful, young man in a matter of seconds. However, Jonathan Smith was able to find a way of connecting almost immediately to the two histories; impressive for an actor with only two professional years behind him. Similarly, Tim Treloar as Jack Firebrace was deeply moving, building on an already complex and heart-warming character, to becoming an engaging and wonderful man onstage with whom the whole audience felt connected to.
I was however, sadly disappointed by Sarah Jayne Dunn as Isabelle Azaire, Wraysford’s love interest. Although the part calls for a certain emotional disconnection due to the nature of her domestic life, the scenes of tenderness appeared somewhat clumpy at times, without the warmth and relief I’d expected to see during the affair. That said, the love scene was a beautifully choreographed dance (Lucie Pankhurst, movement director), being sensitive and expressive through the use of a red scarf, while equally passionate and fierce. Provided the first-night audience was largely school students, I felt this was a well-produced play and a tasteful way of handling the text.
Whilst the set, lighting and actors aided in the changes between past and present, the attempt at seamless movement from, for example, staggering invalid to happy young man, though at first appearing clever, became almost comical as we grew to expect it. Whilst I can see what Whatley was attempting to achieve, having all scenes move in this way lost its innovative spark fairly quickly.
Ultimately, ‘Birdsong’ was cleverly portrayed on this smaller stage, not attempting to imitate its West End predecessor but rather re-imagine Rachel Wagstaff’s stage version of the book. Despite its strong cast and moving story, I found nevertheless that I left the theatre without a feeling of awe and satisfaction, but rather that something more could have been brought out. It was a good play, and a solid production, yet it lacked the spark that has made other adaptations so inspiring.