Birdsong has now been casting its spell over the British public for 25 years. Sebastian Faulks’s novel about the First World War won immediate acclaim when it was published in 1993, critics and readers recognizing that Faulks had found fresh things to say about a subject that’s been mined by writers countless times before. A television version starring Eddie Redmayne was screened in 2012 and this stage adaptation has been regularly performed since its West End premiere in 2010. Watching its latest incarnation at the Floral Pavilion it’s not hard to see why both novel and play have such enduring appeal.
Much of the success of this fine production is due to the skill with which writer Rachel Wagstaff has adapted Faulks’s original novel. The book has three time zones: before, during and after the war. Wagstaff has jettisoned the last of these, and fashioned a script that is taut and fast-moving without sacrificing the novel’s sensitive characterization and emotional power.
The play begins at the Front, where young Stephen Wraysford is leading a group of men, including a team of sappers – skilled tunnel diggers whose dangerous mission is to plant explosives under enemy lines. Stephen has lived in France before and a series of flashbacks takes us back to Amiens in 1910, when as a 20 year old embarking on a career in manufacturing he stayed with a wealthy French family and fell in love with his host’s wife, Isabelle. The transitions from one setting to another, though a little abrupt and disconcerting at first, are effective in evoking Stephen’s journey from ardent but naïve lover to weary, battle-hardened soldier, a despairing figure struggling to cling to his humanity despite the savagery and senseless slaughter that now surround him.
As Stephen, Tom Kay is especially impressive in the wartime scenes, conveying the essential decency that lies beneath the character’s brusque exterior. Several of the actors take on more than one role, displaying excellent versatility as they switch from playing British soldiers to a range of French characters, who include Isabelle’s domineering husband, a comically pompous Amiens councillor and Isabelle’s sister, whose significance increases as the story develops. Tim Treloar is outstanding as Jack Firebrace, the loyal, courageous leader of the sappers, who has some particularly moving scenes when he’s preoccupied by thoughts of his young son who’s ill with diphtheria in England.
The hellish atmosphere of the trenches is chillingly created by some memorable sound and lighting effects. These are complemented by an atmospheric set, with a landscape of heaped earth and rubble, wrecked buildings, barbed wire and wooden stakes set against a sky which has dramatic changes of colour as the play moves towards its climax. There are haunting songs and violin playing from James Findlay, an accomplished folk performer who also plays one of the soldiers.
The First World War is receding ever further away from us, but – one hundred years after the war ended – this superb play reminds us that its horrors should never be forgotten.
**** Tremendously powerful portrayal of the human consequences of war
Birdsong continues at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton until Saturday 10 March.