Birdsong

In Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews by Thom DibdinLeave a Comment

✭✭✭✩✩    Unsettling

King’s Theatre: Tues 21 – Sat 25 April 2015

Emotionally uneven, Birdsong at the King’s has much to recommend it but struggles to convince fully.

There are some striking depictions of the First World War in the Original Theatre Company’s stage version of the celebrated novel by Sebastian Faulks, but it falls oddly short in terms of dramatic coherence.

Emily Bowker as Isabelle Azaire and Edmund Wiseman as Stephen Wraysford. Photo: Jack Ladenburg

The production crystallises many of the problems which arise when a book – particularly one that is much loved – is adapted for the stage. The plotline set nearest to the present has been excised completely and a rewrite of the stage play since its original London production has dispensed with its previously chronological structure.

This means that the story of Stephen Wraysford’s romance with married French woman Isabelle Azaire in 1910 Amiens is told in flashbacks, during the depiction of his time as a young officer on the Western Front. While this is a sound idea, the desire to rewrite speaks volumes about the twin impulses to remain faithful to the original and still produce a coherent and dramatic piece.

The wartime sections are extremely effective, often to the point of being disturbing. However, the concentration on the relationship between Wraysford and Isabelle leaves the show feeling oddly unbalanced. There is a greater problem with the romance, moreover, as it proves difficult to sympathise with or even to believe in it.

believably conflicted

This is not the fault of Edmund Wiseman, whose Wraysford is compellingly played. It is simply that a character who is repressed and uncommunicative at the best of times is so much easier to delineate on the written page than on the stage, and the play never really seems to get round this.

Emily Bowker’s Isabelle, meanwhile, is suitably lively and believably conflicted, but there is something about the emotional content of this whole strand that does not ring true.

Alastair Whatley as Evans and Edmund Wiseman as Stephen Wraysford. Photo Jack Ladenburg

Much of the problem for Wraysford’s character arises because events are depicted that are so terrible they can hardly be imagined. Subsequent generations – as we are reminded – cannot fully understand them; no-one still alive experienced them, and while they were still alive few wanted to relive them.

This problem is far from insurmountable, as is shown by some of the performances, notably Peter Duncan as tunneller Jack Firebrace. Duncan is best remembered as a Blue Peter presenter, but he is magnificent here as a man mourning the death of his young son, struggling to face up to terrible events and emotions he cannot understand, let alone resolve.

Liam McCormick, as fellow ‘sewer rat’ Arthur, is equally good as a man whose taciturn nature never truly disguises his inner torment. Max Bowden’s portrayal of underage volunteer Tipper is heartbreaking, while producer and director Alastair Whatley also impresses as Evans in a role carefully mixing comedy and pathos.

dangerously close to caricature

Cloudia Swann, as Isabelle’s sister Jeanne, is more believably human than some of the other, smaller roles, which are often sketchy and sometimes come dangerously close to caricature. As an ensemble, however, the cast work extremely well, particularly in keeping a sense of forward motion through a series of short episodes.

The cast of the 2015 UK tour of Birdsong. Photo: Jack Ladenburg

Victoria Spearing’s striking set, allied to Dominic Bilkey’s dramatic (and often very loud) sound effects, means that the portrayal of the trenches is suitably unsettling.

In his role as director, Whatley keeps thing fluid but does not stint on the terror. Depictions of the tunnels being dug under enemy lines are particularly effective, as is a harrowing staging of the moments just before the Battle of The Somme. Notes of poetry are provided by Tim van Eyken’s musical direction, admirably discharged by the outstanding singer and fiddler James Findlay.

While this is always solid enough to satisfy those who have loved or studied the book, the production never really manages to lift itself completely off the page and become a dramatic experience in its own right. Sporadically, the sought-for emotional resonance is achieved. Overall, however, it is just too episodic, too unbalanced and slightly too long to remain completely compelling throughout.

Running time 2 hours 35 mins including interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 21 – Saturday 25 April 2015
Evenings 7.30 pm, Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.30 pm
Tickets and information from http://www.edtheatres.com/birdsong

Birdsong on tour 2015: 21 – 25 April Edinburgh
Kings Theatre 0131 529 6000 Book online 27 April – 9 May Bristol
Old Vic Theatre 0117 987 7877 Book online 12 – 23 May Leeds
West Yorkshire Playhouse 0113 213 7700 Book online 27 May – 30 May Derby
Derby Theatre 01332 59 39 39 Book online 1 -5 June Portsmouth
The Kings Theatre 023 9282 8282 Book online 9 – 13 June Hereford
Courtyard Theatre 01432 340555 Book online 16 – 20 June Crewe
Lyceum Theatre 01270 368 242 Book online 22 – 27 June Shrewsbury
Theatre Severn 01743 281281 Book online 29 June – 4 July Richmond
Richmond Theatre 0844 871 7651 Book online

ENDS

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Thom Dibdin
Thom Dibdin has been reviewing and writing about theatre in Scotland since the last millennium. He is currently Scotland Correspondent for The Stage newspaper. In 2010, he founded AllEdinburghTheatre.com. The city's only dedicated theatre website, it covers all Edinburgh theatre year-round - and all theatre made in Edinburgh during EdFringe. Thom is passionate about quality in theatre criticism and is a member of the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. He tweets from @AllEdinTheatre and, personally, from @ThomDibdin.

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