Epic of love, war and death

The desolation of war: Tim Treloar as Jack Firebrace. Pictures: Jack Ladenburg

Birdsong

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

***** 

SEBASTIAN Faulks's epic story Birdsong (1993), his fourth novel set in the First World War, has achieved such iconic status that it would almost seem politically incorrect or blasphemous to rubbish any aspect, or treatment, of it.  

True, Faulks ran a risk. Setting a love story against the background of war has its dangers: the film of Regeneration (which climaxed with Owen meeting Sassoon), narrowly skirted them; so have some (not all) of the Irish ‘Troubles' or, say, Spanish Civil War films; but it can easily become kitsch, as with (say) the disastrous American film Pearl Harbor. 

No such problem attends this superb stage version derived from Faulks's award-winning book by Rachel Wagstaff, which is touring extensively following (as the author points out) a run at the Old Vic and a subsequent staging by Sir Trevor Nunn, Peter Hall's natural successor and doyen of the RSC, National Theatre and West End Musicals. 

For atmosphere, Birdsong's touring set by, Victoria Spearing, could, for these purposes, scarcely be better. It requires a decent sized stage. Skilfully layered – the trenches and wire above, as if we, the audience, were ensconced in some deep dugout (it was the Germans who dug them deepest), it takes in a horrifying evocation of the exit to a sappers' tunnel – up the line to death, as it were; a grim-looking, rat-infested rear recess, battered gothic arches and niches in stone and brick (respectively) that evoke a civilisation bombarded to its knees; and nicely, effortlessly captures the feel of a suburban garden, showing us how Amiens, Albert or Arras were once havens of peace in the pre-war period. 

This virtually impeccable staging features some phenomenally good performances. Top of the list, surely, was Tim Treloar (Jack Firebrace), the sapper whose life, following a near court-martial, gets entwined with that of a young officer, Captain Stephen Wraysford, who later saves Firebrace's life in a tunnel collapse. In the rather good, often searing TV series, where the war-hardened, and now childless, older man easily eclipses the slightly anodyne Eddie Redmayne as his superior, the sapper returns the compliment by saving Wraysford from a hospital where he is left for dead.  

To match the magnificent Joseph Mawle, whose picturesque face is such a moving asset on the TV screen, might seem well-nigh impossible.

But Treloar uncovers a poignancy, a sense of honour and loyalty, an innocence (Firebrace cannot read; but maybe dreams his young son – doomed shortly to perish of wartime diphtheria - will move the family beyond illiteracy and shed its noble, working class rough edges), and a bluff bravery that make Treloar's performance absolutely first class.

Arthur Bostrom as Berard with Sarah Jayne Dunn as Isabelle

The play may centre on Wraysford, who may pick up an MC, but without any scene stealing, Jack's was the Oscar in this staging. 

If Birdsong has major merits, they partly reside not just in both Wagstaff's – and Faulks's – ability to make pre-war Romance and wartime tragedy sit side by side; but in the book's focusing, unusually, on the agonies and the filth of a life lived dangerously underground (often by former British miners) where death – of the enemy pulverised or oneself stifled and strangulated - is both the intended purpose and the ever-overhanging threat. Thanks to Spearing's set and skilful directing, the terrifying scenes of entrapment by a collapse effected by German intruders, plus before that, the death in an explosion of Jack's closest friend Arthur (a super support performance from Liam McCormick) were exceptionally well handled. The claustrophobia was palpable. 

The other soldiery did well, too. Multi-roles are a feature of our cash-strapped day, and as a dramatic feature they frequently make a disproportionate – and beneficial – impact, setting up a kind of additional counterpoint. Take Charlie G. Hawkins' (is there another Charlie Hawkins?) Private Tipper, who provides the fear element so well (he is a teenager, a pretty young one, almost one of those 15 year olds, by now 16, who'd falsified their birthdate; the rest are older), Despite everyone's attempts to sustain and comfort him, Tipper will out of sheer terror commit suicide (a massive irony) seconds before the attack; yet resurfaces in between salvos as an utterly believable pre-teen younger brother in the interspersed scenes set before the war.

SPEECHIFYING OFFICER

 Or the glorious Arthur Bostrom, whose (presumably Private) Adams seems at the outset a kind of looming Boris Karloff – more Germanic/Scandinavian almost; almost Neanderthal; but who reappears both as the speechifying officer (Colonal Barclay – unconscious shades of Another Country?), leading the one major attack we see (as opposed to frequent, slightly too similar and not quite convincing, bombardments: the elsewhere pretty stylish sound plot is by Dominic Bilkey); and, more importantly, Bostrom as the philosophising, somewhat dapper, delicious grandfather figure, Berard, ubiquitous in the pre-war scenes, speaking a well-patterned French to my ear quite deliberately distinct in accent, as well as articulation, from his famous bumbling gendarme Crabtree in the wartime TV spoof series 'Allo 'Allo. This is an actor of note.  

So to the love object. As those familiar with the book and TV show will know, it involves Stephen Wraysford's pre-1914 sojourn in France, where as a young colt he falls for, seduces and briefly runs away with Isabelle the wife of Azaire, an ugly-minded, union-bashing businessman (Malcolm James, whose costume switches between Azaire and Captain Gray were the slickest of the entire cast, and whose commanding, well-thought-through interpretations deserve the laurels too): Gray, the brisk but caring war leader, seems ten times more the able modern businessman than the grotesque, posturing, textile-manufacturing French martinet; James's talent is to switch so ably not only costumes but between the two very opposite roles, differentiating the sensitive true Brit and the appalling Picardie know-it-all with such dramatic subtlety, verve and intelligence.  

All three girls – Isabelle (Sarah Jayne Dunn), with whom Jonathan Smith's questing, slightly priggish-seeming Wraysford engages in an onstage copulation gloriously recast as ballet (Movement Director: the London School of Contemporary Dance's Lucie Pankurst), so that all is miraculously suggested without grotesque or unduly reticent onstage fumblings; the little teenage-turning, sex-intrigued daughter Lisette, begging Wraysford (via blackmail) ‘to do for me what you did for my mother' (the even more memorable Polly Hughes, whose contrasted role as a bidet-using prostitute made a disturbing, even unnerving contrast); and – best of an attractively-cast trio, Poppy Roe as Isabelle's sister Jeanne, with whom Wraysford will eventually settle after discovering Isabelle has given birth to their child, Françoise, and settled down - by 1919 - with a German ex-soldier: the enemy. Roe is astute, arresting, moves exquisitely, is slyly (alternating with openly) observant, fabulously well spoken, has quite sharp, markedly expressive features/facial gestures; and is quite simply, unmatched. 

It is Jeanne's common sense – wisdom, almost – and piercing observation that enables her to act partly as a commentary on the action; and part of Rachel Wagstaff's skill (she has been crayoning plays since the age of six and - like plenty of other youngsters - became absorbed by The Great War at 14; she has also prised a successful radio play from Faulks's more recent The Girl at the Lion d'Or) is in capitalising on this dramatic potentiality in her penetrating, endlessly polished script.

Jeanne is one of the prime reasons these pre-war scenes and their aftermath work, and mesh, so well onstage in this beautiful, very much faithful adaptation of Birdsong (Wagstaff patently possesses the ‘resourcefulness' which Faulks himself praises in a packed, informative programme; though one that lacks (be warned) a synopsis, or perhaps better, a glossing of characters in the cast list, or some clearer elaboration in the credits: who's who's sister? Who's the daughter? Who's a lance-corporal, or private? It doesn't matter much if you listen; but it matters a bit).

Jonathan Smith as captain Stephen Wraysford and Sarah Jayne Dunn as Isabelle

Alastair Whatley directs here, and it would be naff, yet right, to describe this absolutely uncloying, unkitsch staging – every move, even the meticulously plotted set-shifting by the cast, and amid many moments located with the eagle eye of a Director of Photography, one piece of blocking that seemed to me simply amazing – as near perfection. No error; no overegging; no misjudgement. Who could have done better? 

There is music, rather poignant, and not overused: most is thanks to the cast: one immensely affecting passage of four-part harmony from the whole ensemble (and what singers they are) that feels as if it might perhaps be supplemented by a subtle underscore of recorded tape, but may well not have been); the beautiful, and characterful, singing of Joshua Higgott, who plays Pte. Brennan; and pre-recorded the keyboard; or Tim van Eyken, whose gaunt Pte. Evans, a sultry yet engaged and well-meaning figure, contributes even more than his impressive onstage accordion playing.  

They were both involved in the opening, pre-play sequence (a bit like plotted action during an opera Overture), in which most of the cast carouse and arse around in a bar or estaminet. It evoked little or nothing. It didn't look even improvised; just a time-wasting, unimpressive shambles; and just when the scenario most needs to grab our attention. Whatley should surely do something about that; or redraft and replace it; or excise it.  

The only other weak sequence was the skirmish with rival Germanic sappers: pretty weedy, though Wagstaff's text (if not cut) runs a bit short here too, causing the problem. The impact, especially as it involves German soldiers, was indeed 'Allo ‘Allo.  

SUPERB LIGHTS

This week at the Belgrade is only the second of 28 weeks of touring for Birdsong. There's still time for a director (or perhaps Charlotte Peters, Associate Director) to sharpen.  

By contrast, Alex Wardle's lights were quite superb: probingly, scrupulously well  thought-through, endlessly relevant to and beneficial to the stage action, and always on the nub. How Lighting Designers manage to cope with touring productions in countless theatres is beyond me; but I suppose it's like organ recitalists adapting in a few hours to a new instrument. To call this lighting plot atmospheric would be an understatement.  

Birdsong's two main roles were a joy. Jonathan Smith is, to go by his credits, a near-newcomer: he graduated from LAMDA just in 2010. With honours, I'd say, for he is, from this, a performer of some considerable talent; maybe even star quality.  

Gone is Redmayne's droolingly put-upon look. Instead we get something closer to Captain Stanhope in Journey's End. Wraysford has grown up quickly (as Smith clearly has): when infuriated and revolted by Azaire he lures Isabelle away, initially patiently but soon firmly and determinedly, as if he were simply were issuing a reluctant but essential set of orders he expects to be acted upon. When Wraysford, an officer, insists on joining the Sappers he is responsible for, and then recovers Jack from the tunnel, despite being unable to breathe, he goes about it with a businesslike natural authority.  

Perhaps, after the war, he will end up running a textile factory. This was an utterly admirable performance, full of carefully attentive detail even where Smith's reading as yet lacked especially salient visual detail.  

Sarah Jayne Dunn's Isabelle emerges as an Ibsenesque figure (A Dolls House was Wagstaff's first theatrical revelation), at least in the making. Her credits do not indicate a wealth of classical drama, but she is a beautiful presence and captures the torn inclinations which rip Isabelle apart pretty well. Unless, that is, we need a younger Isabelle, somewhere between her and Lisette's age. That would make Malcolm James's wife-beating Azaire seem even more of a despicable old goat.

 When, their love a thing of the past, Isabelle appears at the end, for their last meeting at which Wraysford learns from her (as opposed to sister Jeanne) of her pregnancy, childbirth and relationship with Max, the German she has grown to love, we have advanced not just in time but in maturity: formerly (as the pre-war Wraysford proved) a girl masquerading as a Madame, Dunn's Isabelle has become a Madame: like Tchaikovsky's Tatyana, whether she likes it or not, she is now in control of her destiny. To 02-02-13

Roderic Dunnett

 

This tour of Birdsong runs through to 3 August. In the Midlands area it takes in the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe (12-16 Feb); the Festival Theatre, Malvern (4-9 Mar); Derby Theatre (not Playhouse) (16-20 Apr); Royal Theatre Northampton (13-18 May); Theatre Royal, Nottingham (17-22 June); Milton Keynes Theatre (22-27 July). http://www.birdsongthetour.moonfruit.com/ 

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