Saturday, January 26, 2013

Birdsong Review

The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke

2013 begins with a new production of Sebastian Faulk's novel, Birdsong. I saw it at the Haymarket Theatre in Basingstoke before it goes on tour for the next eight months. I have never read the book but was interested to watch an adaptation of a novel that has received a lot of praise.

In the trenches of No Mans Land a "sewer rat" tunneler, named Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar) is discovered asleep on duty by Captain Stephen Wraysford (Jonathan Smith). With the possibility of a court-martial Jack later reports to Stephen, but the officer claims to have no recollection of the incident and instead asks to see what goes on in the tunnels underneath No Mans Land. While they are underground the tunnels are breached by a German explosion and Stephen is assumed dead. However, Jack finds Stephen barely alive and takes him to hospital. In hospital, Stephen drifts in and out of memories of his visit to the Azaire family in Amiens during 1910, during which he fell in love with the wife, Isabelle (Sarah Jayne Dunn).

I hear that the 2010 London production took the linear approach to the story from Stephen Wraysford's visit to the Azaire household and all the way to the trenches. Looking at reviews from critics and the public it was not entirely successful. Rachel Wagstaff, who wrote the 2010 adaptation, now returns to rewrite the adaptation and this is the result. To me it was a digestible one. Despite spanning many years before and during the First World War, the play continuously went back and forth between these two periods, which kept the story kept moving. 

The play never felt saccharine or depressing, whilst including some tender moments, especially by the end. However the first act is long and there were some lulls in the pacing. Anyone who is unfamiliar with the book may also find the sudden transitions in time a bit disconcerting at first. Yet by the end the story was very satisfying and poignant.

The actors playing the two lead characters carried the production. Jonathan Smith played Stephen Wraysford, an honorable and resolute captain  It is only when he begins to see the horrors of the war that he  gradually becomes a broken man, and at one point he described the Battle of the Somme with torment. There was hardly a moment when Treloar's Jack Firebrace was not praying to God, desperate that he would survive his time in the tunnels and be able to see his family again. But he too had to suffer the lose of those dearest to him.

These two were supported by a strong cast. Sarah Jayne Dunn was a reserved and tortured Isabelle Azaire, and her relationship with the boyish Stephen Wraysfield felt believable. The love scene between Isabelle and Stephen was represented by a sensuous dance and their eventual reunion was filled with anguish. Malcolm James, as Rene Azaire appeared to be the good family man, but soon he reveals himself to be a pitiful, bullying husband to Isabelle. Poppy Roe played a small role until the second act as Jeanne Fourmentier, where she strove to relieve Stephen's pain. Many of the cast members played numerous roles but they did have their moments, including Charlie G Hawkins who played a frightened young soldier named Tipper who sang an affecting song whilst waiting to go over the top at the Somme.

The set showed the devastation of No Man's Land, though it was interesting to see how the setting could be transformed to a tranquil Amiens in 1910. I particularly liked how the sounds of artillery fire would gradually change to the sound of piano music. The transitions felt fluent, as though Stephen was shifting between a dream and reality. There were some impressive scenes that were created on stage, especially how the actors created the feeling of claustrophobia within the tunnels. Other nice additions were the accordion and violin accompaniments that would come out of the cold silence of No Mans Land.

This is quite an absorbing and touching play to watch. I have not seen the 2010 production, but I do think that this version works thanks to the flashbacks, which help to keep the story moving. Together with a strong cast and some great scenery, I would give this an enthusiastic Top Price.

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