Birdsong, Salisbury Playhouse

review-birdsong2WHEN this Original Theatre Company touring production of Sebastian Faulk’s famous First World War novel opened last year, a friend who is a big fan of the book said she thought it was more powerful and intense than the television adaptation.

She was right. It is grittier, darker, noisier, more urgent, more passionate and more shocking.

The stage version by Rachel Wagstaff, directed by Alastair Whatley, is at Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday 8th March, and my advice is see it if you possibly can (if you can get a ticket, that is).

It has all the passion, the anger, the drama, the intensity, the shock and horror and the beauty of the book, and you come out feeling almost shell-shocked, and I don’t say that flippantly.

The crump of the shells, the flash of the explosions, the dark claustrophobia of the tunnels, the crazed lunacy of a battle-hardened colonel leading his men “over the top,” roaring and brandishing a sword, are all captured within an apparently haphazard set that manages convincingly to be by turns an elegant French provincial mansion, a prostitute’s bedroom, a bombed-out bar, the trenches, the tunnels, the field hospital and the bleak field where the dead bodies are lined up.

It is numbing and shattering and there isn’t a weak performance among the 12-strong cast (including the director who makes a brief appearance as a young German Jewish soldier).

But the acting honours go to George Banks as Stephen Wraysford and Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace. Banks captures both the romantic energy and optimism of the pre-war Wraysford and the embittered, superstitious lost soul, who finally finds some sort of redemption in the pitch black of a bombed out tunnel. Duncan gives the performance of his life as the heroic sapper Firebrace, whose love of his wife and young son has seen him through years of tunnelling under the German lines, even when blood is dripping from the shell holes 50 feet above.

The adaptation unsparingly exposes the pointlessness of so much of the military action, but in its depiction of friendship, love, loyalty and the heroism of ordinary people, it is profoundly moving.

Carolin Stoltz gives a touching and restrained performance as the enigmatic Isabelle and Elizabeth Croft offers a splendid complementary performance as her free-thinking and warm-hearted sister Jeanne.

Fiddler Samuel Martin, who also played the Welsh sapper Evans, sang and played the violin beautifully;  the music, arranged by Somerset-born folk musician Tim van Eyken was perfectly chosen, from traditional folk tunes through soldiers’ songs to the cadenza from Beethoven’s violin concerto.

In this year that marks the centenary of the outbreak of the “war to end all wars,” and in a week when we all watch transfixed and fearful at another possible war on the far edge of Europe, this is an important and memorable production.



Photographs by Jack Ladenburg

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