Adapting Sebastian Faulks’s epic 305-page novel set in the First World War into a play was never going to be an easy task. However, Rachel Wagstaff has pulled it off, and The Original Theatre Company’s touring production is one that succeeds in paying tribute to its original book.
In its final week of touring the country, Birdsong follows Stephen Wraysford as he navigates his way through France from 1910 to 1914. During his stay with a wealthy benefactor, his secret relationship with the benefactor’s wife begins, and his love affair becomes the driving force behind his motivation in seeing the war to its end.
Whilst the novel bounces back and forth between time periods, so too does the play, but playwright Rachel Wagstaff has managed to create a structure that doesn’t lumber the story or the point. Flashbacks of Stephen’s affair feature sporadically whilst he digs tunnels with ‘sewer rat’ Jack Firebrace, and it is here, through the two men’s friendship, that we begin to see the impact of the war on the men fighting it.
Director Alastair Whatley is clever to stage the expansive story on a set that acts as both an Amiens artisanal home and the muddy trenches, while scene changes are covered by traditional war songs led by violinist and singer James Findlay. Edmund Wiseman as Stephen portrays the young man at a loss with his love life and with the anguish of fighting for something he doesn’t understand. Wiseman largely carries the show, but with help from Emily Bowker as love interest Isabelle and Peter Duncan as Firebrace. These three actors commit to their characters with determination that propels the show.
Marked as a production to commemorate 100 years of the First World War, it is with great skill that this show has not only endured success thanks to its original novel, but is still bringing home some major themes to today’s audience: largely those of the futility of war, love as an antidote to war and friendship at any cost.
Birdsong is an adaptation that carries genuine emotion, and is a real credit to its original book.
Birdsong is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 4 July 2015. For more information and tickets, see the ATG Tickets website.