Touring – reviewed at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is more than one large-scale depiction of World War One on stage in Edinburgh at the moment. While the juggernaut that is War Horse may cause Birdsong to be overshadowed, the returning touring production of Sebastian Faulks’ story at the King’s has much to recommend it.
If the end result is not always a convincing experience on stage, it is not Faulks’ fault. His much-loved novel is thoroughly untheatrical and adapter Rachel Wagstaff has jettisoned large parts of the family saga. She has finally opted for a chronologically fractured narrative, where Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford’s experiences in the Western Front trenches are contrasted with his earlier relationship with Isabelle, the unhappy wife of a French industrialist.
The result still does not always hang together. The love story has a great deal of work to do in order to match the visceral impact of the war scenes, while the second half is little more than an afterthought compared to the force of the first.
The cast has changed completely from the last time the production was here – with the exception of the singer and musician James Findlay, whose performance of Tim van Eyken’s beautifully chosen material is exemplary. Two directors are listed, with the name of Charlotte Peters added to original director Alastair Whatley, and it has to be said that the current version is slightly sharper, tauter and more emotionally coherent than before.
Much of this is down to the performances of Tom Kay and Madeleine Knight as Stephen and Isabelle. For their relationship to work dramatically, it has to rival the trench-bound strand for impact, and Kay and Knight come close to this. Wraysford’s buttoned-up, uncommunicative nature is a difficult thing to put across on stage while retaining interest, but Kay does it very effectively, with his periodic bursts of emotion all the more affecting as a result.
Knight, meanwhile, makes Isabelle’s frustrations and passions believable, to the extent that her actions seem excusable to the audience while remaining unfathomable to Stephen.
In the end, however, despite the performers’ best efforts, what works on the printed page never quite comes off on stage, with the parallels between the two stories seeming forced and unnatural.
Despite the foregrounding of the love story, in many ways the play’s central figure is ‘sewer rat’ Jack Firebrace, the Royal Engineer who is responsible for tunnelling under No Man’s Land in order to plant explosives. Tim Treloar (perhaps best known for his uncanny revival of Jon Pertwee’s Dr Who in audio dramas) provides a heartrending performance, by turns stoically dignified and brokenly uncomprehending. Simon Lloyd, as fellow sapper Arthur, turns in a performance of similar hidden depths.
The episodic structure of the piece means that there is a parade of characters who are rarely sufficiently developed, however hard the cast try. Some of them come across more as oddly-judged comic relief, complete with at least one far-from-convincing accent.
As the anniversary of the end of the war approaches, where this production does score very highly is in its depiction of the incomprehensible horror and futility of conflict. Kay’s Wraysford channels a despair that goes beyond disillusion or nihilism, with the character struggling to retain his humanity in the face of what humanity has come to represent.
When sabre-rattling brinkmanship passes for diplomacy, and those whose first instinct is to bomb are hailed as peacemakers, we need to be reminded of the past in order to avoid repeating it. At times what happens on Victoria Spearing’s war-ravaged set is on the harrowing side of poignant, but it probably needs to be.
Running time 2 hours 55 minutes including one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ.
Tuesday 8 – Saturday 11 March 2018
Daily at 7.30 pm,; Saturday MatineesWed and Sat 2.30 pm
Tickets and details: http://www.capitaltheatres.com/birdsong.
Birdsong on tour 2018:
Tue 8 to Sat 12 May
0131 529 6000
Mon 14 – Sat 19 May
Mon 21 – Sat 26 May
03000 266 600
Tue 29 May – Sat 2 June
0844 871 7647
Tue 5 – Sat 9 June
Theatre Royal/Takeover Festival
Mon 11 – Sat 16 June
01332 59 39 39
Mon 18 – Sat 23 June
The New Alexandra Theatre
0844 871 3011
Tue 26 – Sat 30 June
Mon 2 – Sat 7 July
Assembly Hall Theatre
01892 530 613
Tue 10 – Sat 14 July
0117 987 7877
Mon 16 – Sat 21 July
James Findlay (Cartwright) and the company of BIRDSONG. Credit Jack Ladenburg