U.K. Review: "Birdsong" at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • OnStage Blog United Kingdom Critic

Sebastian Faulks’s 1993 novel Birdsong has long established itself as one of the nation’s favourite books. In recent years it has continued to find success as a stage adaptation, captivating audiences with the story of a soldier’s passionate love affair against all the odds. Adapted by Rachel Wagstaff and directed by Alastair Whatley with Charlotte Peters, I took my seat in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre to see the show on its new tour.

In case you’re not familiar with it, Birdsong is set in First World War, with the action taking place between 1916 and 1918 on the Western Front, France. We follow the story of Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay), a young soldier leading his men through the horrors of the war. One of the only things bolstering Stephen’s spirit is the thought of his love Isabelle Azaire (Madeleine Knight) with whom he had an affair with in 1910. Drifting in and out of the past and his present, Stephen, along with the courageous sapper Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar) and his band of soldiers, Stephen vows to return to Isabelle and lead his men to victory.

What follows is a masterful composition and conjuration of Faulks’s novel. Wagstaff’s adaptation, in the hands of directors Whatley and Peters, is a striking and gripping piece of theatre. The masterful composition comes down to the directorial command of atmospheres, which range from the comforting innocence of a sunlight pre-war France to the hellfire of mass genocide amidst the grey, bleak battlefields of the First World War. Through smooth and seamless transitions interwoven with focused changes in the piece’s scenography, along with the carefully considered manifestation of atmospheres within the physicality of the characters, the directors are able to guide the audience through Faulks’s timeless narrative.

Victoria Spearing’s set design cleverly makes economical use of the space, giving the scale of the action a much larger feel and feeding the imaginations of its spectators; we can but only imagine the horrors of the conflict. For instance, Spearing’s wooden cross that dominates the backdrop helps to echo the sentiment of remembrance that gave Faulks’s novel its trademark tone; carefully placed tunnels and the smooth arrival and departure of furniture beautifully captures the fluidity of memory. Aiding this is Alex Wardle’s lighting design, which imbues such fluidity with pure emotive power to accompany the actors’ performances, while Dominic Bilkey’s sound design excellently conjures up an epic sonic landscape to enhance the changes in location and emphasise the scale of the play-world.

Kay, Knight and Treloar deliver powerful and highly memorable performances as the three points on the narrative triangle, effectively commanding their moments as the perspective switches between them. We see the devastating effects of war on each character in different, individually nuanced ways, which once again brings to life the sheer scale of the play-world, which in turn echoes the vastness of the senses of loss, brutality, courage and determination that pulsed throughout one of humanity’s darkest times. What is most striking and enjoyable, however, is how the whole company of actors seamlessly work together to tell the story, with each member of the versatile ensemble demonstrating integrity, respect and performative sensitivity as the lives of their characters unfold before us.

This adaptation of Birdsong is truly gripping, and takes you on an emotional journey that serves to remind you of not only the horrors of war, but also the power of courage, comradeship and love. With stunning performances and a masterfully crafted scenography, this adaptation of Birdsong is nothing short of triumphant.

Birdsong is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 17th Feb and then continues on tour. For more information and tickets, visit: http://www.birdsongthetour.com/home/4568938814