A tale of love and war

Waiting for the whistle to go over the top to a likely death

Birdsong

Birmingham Rep

****

SEBASTIAN Faulks’s best selling novel is not the easiest of narratives to distil into a couple of hours on stage with its huge canvas encompassing pre-war France and the whole sorry tale of the carnage on the Western Front.

Inevitably there have to be compromises, scenes combined or missed completely, with room and time for only the bare essence of the story.

And, most important, many of the audience will not have read the book, or know its content, so Rachel Wagstaff’s stage version has to stand on its own two feet – the huge canvas of Faulks’s novel is a blank sheet of paper when it comes to the stage version.

In the main Wagstaff and director Alastair Whatley pull it off, helped by a stunning set by Victoria Spearing.

With the First World War Centenary moving into overdrive there is no more evocative sight than strands of barbed wire and shattered posts left in the rough shape of a broken cross dominating the stage and silhouetted against the sky in no man’s land.

Below them with have a two level stage which represents the world of trenches on the surface and below the dangerous and dark world of the sappers, the tunnelers who dug under enemy lines and set off huge explosions to destroy their trenches – at least that was the theory. Theirs is a world where blood drips through the roof, seeping through from the shell holes above, as they, and the Germans, dig their tunnels to kill their fellow amn.

Jack Firebrace played by Peter Duncan with his injured officer Stephen Wraysford who is thought to be dead

That was the world of Jack Firebrace, a superb performance from Peter Duncan, an actor first and foremost but perhaps best remembered as a Blue Peter presenter. His oppos are the lumbering bear of a man Arthur Shaw, good support from Simon Lloyd, and the Welsh miner Evans, a multi-talented performance from Samuel Martin who produces a wonderful tenor voice and plays the violin beautifully.    

Into their world comes young officer Stephen Wraysford played with intensity by George Banks and it is his story we follow from when he is sent to Amiens by his wealthy guardian to study textile production at René Azaire’s factory in 1910.

There, he discovers, workers are paid starvation wages and are being secretly helped by Azaire’s wife Isabelle, played with an elegant beauty by Carolin Stoltz.

The pair fall in love and just in case anyone had any doubts as to what happened next, they indulge in a sort of hard edged balletic foreplay which involved headboard balancing and even a spot of furniture moving, a sort of sexual circuit training before eventually landing on the bed.

Azaire discovers the adultery but Isabelle runs off with Stephen but the affair mysteriously ends and is never fully explained in any detail.

Interspersed with the pre-war love story is Stephen’s life as an officer in the trenches. Unlike the book the play flicks back and forth between past and present with the timelines only coinciding in the later stages as the dehumanizing effect of war is taking its toll.

This can be a little confusing  at times but works reasonable well with Stephen in hospital injured and delirious, reliving his love affair in 1910, although a simpler transition between past and present would suffice, perhaps, rather than Stephen’s flailing about to indicate the scene was heading back to his hospital bed.

Scenes in the tunnel were perhaps the most confusing with Whately perhaps going for realism over theatrical practicality, with the tunnellers having pinpricks of light on a dark stage, thus we have a firefight with a lot off shouting when it is impossible to see what is going on, although one of the final scenes when a dying Jack and Stephen are trapped in a collapsed tunnel, barely visible in the gloom, is perhaps one of the most poignant of the whole play.

Jack pours his heart out about his son John, who died aged eight from diphtheria with his father unable to get leave to visit his dying child, while Stephen, losing some of the angst for once, talks about Isabelle.

Love amid the trenches, Stephen, George Banks, withIsabelle played by Carolin Stoltz

The lives of the two became intertwined when Stephen let Jack off from a court martial for being asleep on sentry duty, a crime which carried the death penalty - although of 393 men sentenced to death for it only two men were ever executed. The bond was strengthened when a lifeless Stephen was laid out with the dead after the tunnel battle and Jack discovered he was still alive, calling for help and returned the favour, saving his life.

We only find out snatches about the rest. Evans for all his bluster and bravado talk of keeping the local prostitutes in business, is still a virgin, a fact we discover only when he is heartbroken about the death of his brother in the attack. He wonders if he was as well as if dying a virgin somehow made it worse.

Arthur we know little about except that he reads all Jack’s letters. Jack is illiterate but Arthur makes nothing of it. Just reads the more and more tragic news from home to him.

There is good support from Malcolm James as both René and  Stephen’s immediate superior Captain Gray and James Staddon as the remarkable pompous Berard, René’s friend, who has eyes, and much more ,lusting after Isabelle. He laso plays the equally pompous Col Barclay encouraging the men before the first day of battle, a first day that saw 60,000 British casualties.

A good performance too from Elizabeth Croft as Isabelle’s sister Jeanne while Selma Brook was the pretty Azaire daughter Lisette, finding her way from childhood to womanhood with an infatuation for Stephen.

Her younger brother Gregoire is played by Jonny Clarke who also plays the young private Tipper who finally cracks, unable to take any more in the trenches. Just to keep the cast in order director Whateley appears at the end, gun in hand, as a Jewish German soldier, Levi, to announce the war is over. It is a poignant moment; men can be men again, no longer killing each other, although for Levi a new, more personal war is just around the corner.

Dominic Bilkey’s sound design, linked to Alex Wardle’s lighting produce some dramatic moments of gunfire – the Allies bombarded the German lines for five days with 1.5 million shells before the opening day of the Battle of the Somme – and the explosions of the mines.

It is hard to show the horrors of war on stage, Journey’s End in its understated matter of fact way, perhaps comes closest, imagination being far more powerful then special effects, but Birdsong makes a decent fist of pulling together the threads of a wide ranging novel into the confines of a stage.

It will inevitably disappoint some who have read the book, and it will certainly be easier to follow for those familiar with it, but there is still enough there to engage anyone new to Birdsong and enough to echo the horrors and carnage of a century old war.

Roger Clarke

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