“If you’re not in tears by the end, it’s not a good performance,” my friend said when I told her I was going to see Birdsong at Nuffield Southampton Theatres this week. As I packed extra tissues into my bag before I left for the show, I hoped I would need them all.
In commemoration of the end of WW1 100 years ago, the adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s novel has arrived in Southampton partway through its tour around the UK.
I have always had a love for both World Wars in art and in education; the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Sassoon, history lessons about the blitz and the battles, films of love and harrowing loss, exhibitions and more. These things all evoke strong feelings from me, and I think it is this emotional attachment which keeps me wanting to absorb more and more.
I have not read Birdsong. Surprising, given my love of the war (see above) and books, but there you have it. And so I went into this performance completely blind, with no knowledge of the storyline and no expectations.
I am quite glad this was the case, and having read through a synopsis of the book I think the play has been adapted slightly differently, with the entire production being set around WW1, missing out the story set in 1970 in the original novel. So, if you are expecting a play that follows the book chapter for chapter, you may need to be aware of this.
The story opens in the trenches of France in 1916; we are introduced to the tunnelers and the men on the front line, and what ensues is a story of tragic love and loss, and the brutality of war.
The audience is taken seamlessly from 1916 to 1910, and back again, throughout the entire show, following the story of soldier Stephen Wraysford, his love affair with a French beauty, Isabelle, and the raging war around them.
Alongside Stephen’s story, we grow to love the men joining him in France, all fighting their own battles, and each with their own sad story to tell.
It was, as my friend had promised, an emotional performance. For the majority of the first act, the story was set up with a lot of action, and I was a little worried that my eyes were far too dry. However, upon the first hint of loss just before the interval, I welled up, and from then on it was just as I had anticipated; heartbreaking.
The set was incredibly beautiful; the attention to detail superb. It transitioned so smoothly from trench to French town and back and gave the whole production an extra touch of magic. From the tiniest change in lighting to signify an exact moment at twilight to the muffled darkness of an underground tunnel, the design was one of my favourite things about this production; it was visually breathtaking.
The music was wonderful too; there isn’t much of it, but when it was there, it amplified the emotions evoked on stage tenfold. A simple fiddle and a beautiful voice brought scenes down to earth and reminded us of the reality of these men on stage and on the battlefield; farmers, clerks, shopkeepers. The cast would occasionally hum, sing or provide slight effects here and there which truly finished particular scenes off perfectly.
As for the cast…Tim Treloar as Jack Firebrace absolutely stood out with his deeply passionate, raw portrayal of an ordinary man caught up in conflict and coping with loss that surrounds him from all sides; his was an absolutely astounding performance and a highlight of the show.
In fact, all of the men playing troops were very talented and I truly believed they were in the trenches and facing almost-certain death. Alfie Browne-Sykes broke my heart as Tipper – a lad who enlisted, lied about his age and became a victim of his own terror – with some incredible acting.
I felt for each and every character on stage, which is a testament to the skills of the cast. Tom Kay’s Stephen was strong and determined, though I would have liked to have seen him soften a little more. At times his was a slightly stoic character (though Tom’s portrayals of rage were superb) which, I will admit, I found a little disappointing. However, I did wonder if it was a representation of the hard shell developed over time in a life of hardship made even more difficult by the Great War.
The whole performance was a painfully sad pleasure to watch and I became completely wrapped up in the lives of these ordinary folk caught up in conflict. It reminded me of one of my favourite plays, Journey’s End – we see a range of classes and beliefs thrown together to co-exist, and they rely on each other to survive. Stories of love and family life, and loss and raw reality intertwine and weave as smoothly through the plot as the seamless set changes.
It is a fantastic portrayal of the tragedy and unfair nature of WW1, beautifully staged and performed with heart and passion, that kept me wrapped up in the story and broke my heart repeatedly.
(And for the record, I needed each and every tissue – which, I think, is the sign of a fantastic show.)
Birdsong is showing at NST’s Campus venue until Saturday 21 April. Visit the NST website to book your tickets.
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I was invited to review this performance, but as always all views are honest and completely my own.