Birdsong, Comedy Theatre, London’s West End, September 2010

Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong achieved immense success, but seventeen years after its publication no movie version has yet made it to the screen, despite several false starts. It’s not easy to turn this story — about human anguish occasioned by the First World War — into a screenplay, nor indeed a play for the stage. Rachel Wagstaff has made a valiant effort at the second option, and the first Act, which takes place entirely in pre-war France works very well. Twenty-year-old Stephen Wraysford’s guardian has sent him to France, “An adventure in a foreign land where nobody even knows my name”, to study the workings of a factory, while living in the house of the owner and his wife Isabelle. Their marriage is miserable and abusive, Wraysford gets involved with Isabelle and they fall in love. They intend to run away together, but it doesn’t happen, and during the war when Wraysford is fighting in France, they meet again.

Ben Barnes and Genevieve O'Reilly as Stephen and Isabelle

Isabelle was beautifully portrayed by Genevieve O’Reilly, and her sister Jeanne was very sympathetically played by Zoë Waites. Ben Barnes as Stephen Wraysford in Act I was absolutely convincing, and the interplay between the men and the woman was excellent. But Acts II and III threw us into the quagmire of trench warfare, and this was not so successful. The goofing around between the soldiers seemed somewhat contrived, and Act II felt like a history lesson — it lacked focus and failed to grip me. In order to bring out the horrors of war one needs to concentrate on a few facts, but there was altogether too much here. Only the brilliant performance of Lee Ross as Jack Firebrace carried real conviction, and the letters telling him about the loss of his young son were poignant moments.

photos by Johan Persson

At the end a German soldier finds his way into the British tunnel, but his vaguely foreign accent was certainly not German — it carried entirely the wrong intonation — and Wraysford’s final speech sounded like grandstanding. Such a shame that this brave attempt to put Birdsong on stage, directed by Trevor Nunn, did not excite the audience at this preview, and from where I was sitting the theatre seemed little more than half full.

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