Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is my all time favourite book. I also absolutely loved the TV adaptation that was done a few years ago. So, when they announced they were doing a theatre production of it for 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War I jumped at the chance of getting tickets. Even better, the touring production came to my local theatre and, yesterday, I finally got to see it.
If you don’t know the story, it’s about an English man called Stephen Wraysford who falls in love with Isabelle Azaire, a French woman who is married to the man Stephen is working for in Amiens. They embark on a passionate but dangerous affair which can only lead to heartache. The memories of this time haunt Stephen as he struggles with life in the trenches during his time at the Somme.
The book also weaves in the story of Stephen’s granddaughter Elizabeth and how, upon finding his long forgotten journals, sets upon a journey that takes her to the battle grounds of France where millions of men lost their lives and how this impacts on her own life. Both the TV and theatre adaptations leave this side of the story out, which is understandable, as it would be rather complicated to do.
The theatre performance was absolutely stunning and completely heartbreaking. I think I cried three times! Stephen was played by George Banks, a long-running theatre actor, whilst Isabelle was played by Carolin Stoltz, who has appeared in the theatre as well as on TV and film.
George Banks, had a really tough job living up to the performance Eddie Redmayne did in the TV series. Eddie played Stephen with such haunting beauty and delicate sensitivity that anyone would’ve struggled. Carolin Stoltz was great as Isabelle and managed to pull off the complicated nature of the character whilst still being light and slightly aloof. Her French accent was pretty good too.
However, the star of the show had to be Peter Duncan (yes, Peter Duncan from Blue Peter) who played the third main character, Jack Firebrace. Jack and Stephen’s paths cross in the trenches and then, later on, down in the tunnels Jack and his men dig to listen for the German enemy and plant mines under their trenches. Their lives back in the real world are vastly different but, during their time in France, they strike up an unusual friendship that takes them through to the end of the war.
Peter Duncan, just like Joseph Mawle in the TV series, played Jack with an incredibly powerful sympathy for a man who’s son, back home, is very ill and not likely to survive, yet his mind must focus on keeping his men safe. His scenes in which Jack correspondences with his wife Margaret were so moving and so beautiful that you couldn’t help but feel what Jack was feeling.
The set remained the same throughout the production, with the sinister cross and coiled barbed wire of the top of the trench dominating the backdrop at all times. This meant that during the pre-war scenes the luxurious furniture looked completely out of place and you just had to use your imagination as to what the actual room looked like. However, I think this only heightened the sense of doom and destruction that was felt during the war scenes.
Quite possibly the most memorable scene, and the one that really grabbed at your heart and made you sit up and listen, was just before Stephen leads his men over the top of the trench to fight for their lives. Five of the characters, including Stephen and Jack read experts from letters they write to home before they go over. The audience was deathly quiet and I was desperately fighting back the tears.
At the end the lights went out and no-one clapped. It was really strange but I think everyone was so overwhelmed with emotion that they just didn’t know what to do. Evetually the lights came up and the whole cast stood at the front of the stage. We all then applauded respectfully, with Peter Duncan receiving the loudest rapture. He said, after everyone stopped, that he was really worried that no-one liked it as we didn’t clap immediately!
The current run of Birdsong is coming to an end but, because of the exceptional demand for tickets, they have decided to continue next year. For more information about dates just follow their Facebook or Twitter page where they will be making the announcements. In the meantime, have a look at the trailer for the show which will definitely leave you wanting to buy tickets. I just had another little cry watching it!