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Superb adaptation of novel marks centenary of WWl armistice
It must be pretty challenging to adapt a 503 page novel for the stage, particularly such a demanding one as Birdsong. But this splendid production of Sebastian Faulks' outstanding book successfully captures the sheer horror and carnage of the First World War. Birdsong, which was adapted for the live theatre by Rachel Wagstaff, had previously enjoyed three nationwide tours following its first showing in 2010, in the West End. But it has been brought back this year for one final public airing - including its current run at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham up until Saturday 23 June - to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice in 1918.
The cast of Birdsong, which is running at the New Alexandra Theatre. Credit Jack Ladenburg
Birdsong, which is presented by Birdsong Productions in association with the Original Theatre Company, unveils an enchanting story of love and courage both before and during the bloody First World War in pre-war France. Unlike the best-selling book, the play opens close to the front line in France in 1916 at the height of the conflict. It then proceeds to tell the story of young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, who embarks on a passionate affair with the beautiful and married Isabelle Azaire in a series of poignant flashbacks. The dangerous relationship that turns both their worlds upside down starts six years earlier, in 1910, close to what was to become the bloody Somme battlefield.
Tom Kay as Stephen and Madeleine Knight as Isabelle. Credit Jack Ladenburg
Once war breaks out, Stephen, who is excellently played by Tom Kay, finds himself an almost reluctant army officer who must lead his men through the carnage of the Battle of the Somme. On top of this heavy responsibility, he also volunteers to see what life is like in the narrow, cramped tunnels deep underground which have been made by the sappers, or 'sewer rats', with the aim of trying to blow up the enemy trenches above them. Faced with this seemingly never-ending horror of the war, Stephen clings to the memory and love of Isabelle in his former life as his world explodes around him.
Soldiers and sappers on the front line in Birdsong. Credit Jack Ladenburg
The romance of Stephen and the beautiful Isabelle, who is equally beautifully played by Madeleine Knight, is clearly central to the story as it moves through the years. However, playwright Rachel chooses to revolve much of the poignancy around the down-to-earth character of sapper Jack Firebrace, superbly portrayed by Tim Treloar, who returns to the role he previously played in 2013. In fact, the play, which benefits from a splendid set, opens with Jack and his fellow sewer rats enjoying a spot of 'down time' in between stints underground. You then get to learn about the illness of his young son at home in England as he wishes for the war to end soon.
Life in France before the war. Left to right: Martin Carrol, Tom Kay, Jeffery Harmer, Madeleine Knight. Credit Jack Ladenburg
Throughout the two hour play, the occasional loud bangs that signify explosions both on the battlefield and underground, provide some small illustration of what it must have been like at the front. But Birdsong, which is well directed by Alastair Whatley with Charlotte Peters, particularly strikes home in the emotive scenes as the soldiers write letters home on the eve of the Somme, and the stunning moments as they go over the top. The excellent cast is also made up of Olivia Bernstone, Alice Brittain, Alfie Browne-Sykes, Martin Carroll, Riley Carter-Millington, James Findlay, Liz Garland, Jeffrey Harmer and Simon Lloyd.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Tim Treloar as sapper Jack Firebrace during the First World War. Credit Jack Ladenburg
Birdsong, which is suitable for ages 12 plus, continues at the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, until June 23, with performances starting at 7.30pm plus a Saturday matinee at 2.30pm. Tickets priced from £14.90 to £37.90 are available by visiting www.atgtickets.com/birmingham or by calling 0844 871 3011.
Forthcoming UK shows
26-30 June Festival Theatre Malvern 2-7 July Assembly Halls Tunbridge Wells 10-14 July The Old Vic Theatre Bristol 16-21 July Oxford Playhouse Oxford