My A Level comparative literature module was on the topic of World War One literature, and so whilst very familiar with stories of The Great War, I had somehow managed to skip actually reading Sebastian Faulks’ seminal novel, Birdsong. Most likely because I was busy fangirling over Wilfred Owen poetry. But I knew the impact of Birdsong as a well respected portrayal of life in the trenches, and more aptly I knew it was a long novel. So I was interested to see how Rachel Wagstaff’s highly acclaimed adaptation wold bring a weighty story, with even weightier subject matter to life on the stage.
Jumping between different time periods, Birdsong tells the story of Stephen Wraysford (played by Tom Kay) as he leads his men from the trenches, raw from a passionate love affair which ends abruptly. Through clever transitions from current to flashbacks, we see how Stephen, an Englishman in pre-war France, meets and falls in love with Isabelle Azaire, played by Madeleine Knight, whose film and tv credits include credits include Poldark and Florence Foster Jenkins. Kay and Knight are a compelling duo and their performances are faultless.
Stephen’s story is weaved in with that of Jack Firebrace, played by Tim Treloar who is simply stunning. Jack is an ex-miner digging the London Underground system who signs up to help the war effort because they pay is better. His father-like role in the trenches and loyal friendship with Arthur (played by Simon Lloyd) forge stronger bonds which hurt all the more when they unravel. Whilst most of the action may centre around Stephen, both his love and torment, the heart of the play belongs firmly to Jack, whose everyman character makes his easy to identify with in a world which is anything but.
Discarding the 1970s elements from the novel is a sensible decision, as the play is still packed full of story but at times still feels a bit clunky transitioning from the pre-war to war period. This is remedied in the second half when the flashbacks catch up with wartime and the actions becomes more of split narrative, which is an impressive sight.
There is no way a stage adaptation could recreated the horrors or World War One, nor would anyone want to see it fetishised, but the play does a fine example of addressing some of the darker elements sympathetically, but without glossing over the conditions of war – shell shock (known now as PTSD), suicide, absence from family life and the sheer futility of millions of people who lost their lives. Well timed sound and lighting means that the audience never quite feels at ease,
Birdsong certainly won’t be a play for everyone; it’s not a feel-good kind of show, but it’s a powerful, well told story adapted sensitively and certainly a memorable piece of theatre. If you enjoy the nuances of a well told story or have even a passing interest in World War One, then this is a must see.
Birdsong is at the New Alexandra Theatre until 23 June, which means you’ve got no England match excuses to miss it. To buy tickets, visit the ATG website.
This was a press event.