Classic war tale of doomed youth and lost love rings true
Unlike Sebastian Faulks' best-selling novel, which begins with a love affair, Rachel Wagstaff's stage adaptation of Birdsong starts as the war is already underway. The 'sewer rats' or sappers (the men who dig tunnels underground to plant mines under German trenches) are drowning their fears in drink and song – a welcome diversion from the horrors of the front line.
Designer Victoria Spearing's imposing set design and Alex Wardle's magnificent lighting bring the war to the stage, with its bombed out towns, its tunnel openings, barbed wire, twisted metal and large symbolic wooden cross.
Our hero, Stephen Wraysford, is a lieutenant in the army, preparing to take his men to the Somme. He's in no doubt of the dangers, and despite being wounded himself, is determined to see the job through.
The narrative of conflict is splintered with flashbacks to Amiens in 1910, where a naive young Stephen has been sent by his guardian to learn about the textile trade. He falls in love with his host's wife Isabelle (Carolin Stoltz), and their affair and subsequent fall-out is interspersed throughout the story of battle. Wraysford is the key to this story. It is through his eyes that we witness the devastation of war. However, George Banks' querulous delivery and kneebends which signal a shift in narrative prove impediments to our understanding of his character, and incessant flashbacks remove tension.
It is on surer ground when it stays with the filth and fear of the trenches, and the stories of those who suffered. Peter Duncan gives a moving portrayal of Jack Firebrace, the death of whose small son in England heralds his loss of faith – in both God and the future. His letters home, along with some plaintive singing from the soldiers, add an air of much-needed poignancy to the production.
Faulks' Birdsong is unforgettable not just for the story it tells, but the language it uses to tell it. Little of that lyrical prose has made it to this stage adaptation, and it's only through the simple voice of Firebrace that we get close to the unimaginable horrors of the Great War.