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Birdsong on stage

Does the First World War tearjerker's stage offensive pack the same emotional punch as Sebastian Faulk's much-loved novel?

It’s some feat condensing a 503 page novel that spans three generations into a stage play of a few hours and keeping fans of the well-loved book happy but Rachel Wagstaff ‘s adaptation of Birdsong – at The Capitol, Horsham until Sat 28 April – seems to have cracked it.

Madeleine Knight as Isabelle Azaire and Tom Kay as Stephen Wraysford. Picture by Jack Ladenburg

Set in World War One, Sebastian Faulks’ best-selling saga tells of a company of men in the trenches and the illicit romance between British officer Stephen and French factory owner’s wife Isabelle, the memory of which Stephen clings to amid the horror.

Picture by Jack Ladenburg

The stage set is relatively simple yet cleverly designed with barbed wire above and a tunnel entrance below. A large swing door to the wings turns another wall into the interior of Isabelle’s home in a second (well done to whoever’s in charge of making sure actors don’t get knocked out in the process!) This, along with some speedy maneouvering of a chaise longue etc, creates swift flashbacks to Stephen’s romance and a juxtaposition of the two contrasting worlds. At one point Isabelle weeps on velvet cushions while just to her right, in a transposed scene, a grimy soldier emerges from a tunnel.

Picture by Jack Ladenburg

The sound effects are outstanding. It is these and flashes of light that manage to bring a sense of the atrocious warfare to the  stage. Explosions seem to boom around the auditorium. Much more subtly, there are also some beautiful solo folk songs – courtesy of James Findlay – adding to poignant moments. It all works particularly well in The Capitol because it’s a relatively intimate space with a great rake on the seats.

Tim Treloar as Jack Firebrace and Alfie Browne-Skyes as Tipper. Picture by Jack Ladenburg

There’s not much time to fully build up the romance in the duration of the play and though Birdsong is famously a love story, for me it was the camaraderie and gallows humour between the men that chocked me up, with Tim Treloar, who plays tunneller Jack, the stand out actor. The female characters, particularly Madeleine Knight, a lively Isabelle against Tom Kay’s softly spoken, introspective Stephen, were also particularly strongly played with French accents so convincing that when I met the actors afterwards I was surprised to find them Brits!

Liz Garland as Isabelle’s sister Jeanne in centre. Picture by Jack Ladenburg

Though the horrors of trench warfare are well documented, the role of tunnellers in the First World War, attempting to breach and explode enemy lines, was not something I knew about and is a fascinating part of Birdsong. Clever sound and lighting and strong acting make the underground scenes frightening and claustrophobic.

Picture by Jack Ladenburg

Birdsong has long languished on my ‘to read’ list and the production came to the stage before I made it the page but I hear that though it is, by necessity, a sort of highlights montage of the full novel (the whole Seventies section, for instance, has been cut) it still stands up well.

Muddy Gloucestershire’s editor Sarah saw the play recently and says it’s a good distillation of the book (and not as steamy – something of a relief in a theatre and it means you could take teens without blushes). Sebastian Faulks was actually very involved in the adaptation, going through Rachel Wagstaff’s script line by line with her with comment and praise. He’s even endorsed the production with cameos on a few nights!

Picture by Jack Ladenburg

It’s the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One this year, so a particularly fitting time to see Birdsong. This is also the production’s last tour, so catch it while you can.

Birdsong is at The Capitol, Horsham, Mon 23 April to Sat 28 April. Tickets are from £22.50 for the evening performances and  from £17 for the matinees on Wed and Sat.


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