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by The Stage Dragon
Rachel Wagstaff has created a truly stunning stage adaptation of Sebastion Faulks’ evocative best-selling war time novel Birdsong – brought to life imaginatively by Director Alistair Whatley.
The play follows a group of British troops on the Western Front, France, 1916-1918. Their story also moves back to 1910, Amiens, France, delving into the memories of protagonist Stephen Wraysford (Jonathan Smith).
The audience needs to be alert to the jump back in time. It begins in 1916 and quite soon skips back to 1910, then follows both ‘present day’ and ‘Stephen’s memories’ in parallel.
Wagstaff envisaged a claustrophobic atmosphere when adapting the story and Whatley, with a fantastic creative team, has clearly managed to create this onstage. There are various settings in which the action takes place but the audience are transported with ease throughout the play from within the tunnels under no-mans-land to the memory of the Azaire’s bright house where Stephen stayed and fell in love with Isabelle Azaire (Sarah Jayne Dunn).
Much is owed to a fantastic set and lighting, and the cast who work together as a real team. As a member of the audience you are asked to use your imagination a vast amount, quite a rarity these days. There were no over crowded sets. Instead although detailed they are hugely adaptable. Scene changes are executed by the cast smoothly and without fault, quite often unnoticeable.
Jonathan Smith does a fantastic job as Stephen Wraysford, seamlessly weaving between the present day of war and his memories from 1910 in Amiens. His emotions fluctuate effortlessly and this allows the audience to follow and trust his journey of strife, fear and passion right to the mesmerising final scenes with tunneller Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar).
Jack is one of the initial characters the audience is introduced to and throughout the play he acts as the audiences’ voice, interacting with Stephen and bringing him out of his memories. Tim Treloar gives a superb performance as Firebrace as we see him deal with loss, death and heartache.
Equally, Sarah Jayne Dunn portrays the timid and fragile Isabelle Azaire beautifully. Her character’s inner conflict between her husband Rene Azaire and Stephen is clearly revealed, especially in the initial scenes between herself and Stephen.
The atmosphere created within the play by both cast and the production team is just incredible. At a running time of 2hrs 40mins it is a long show, but at no point does it drag and this stirring piece of historical drama really is a real spectacle.
You will be absolutely absorbed into the lives of those who served in The Great War and whilst we may never understand fully what it was like during that time, this poignant adaptation of Birdsong gives us an insight. I will be amazed if this isn’t transferred into the West End once it has finished touring in August. Birdsong is at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre until Saturday, March2nd.