Sebastian Faulks' epic 500-page First World War novel, Birdsong, has regularly failed to make it into production as a film.Now playwright Rachel Wagstaff has trimmed the story for the stage. Gone is Birdsong's redemptive last third where a modern-day granddaughter seeks to understand the harrowing war. What we're left with is a pretty romance set in 1910 Amiens, with boat trips, rose gardens and sunshine; and a contrasting, heart-felt delve into the trenches in the same bit of France in the second half. (Even with the cuts, the action still takes 3 hours, with two intervals: you have been warned.)The early section, where a young Stephen Wraysford (Ben "Prince Caspian" Barnes) moves in with a French family to learn about textile factories, and falls in love with his host's wife Isabelle, is the weakest. Despite a strong performance from Barnes as the young outsider, the passion and intensity of the book really fails to make it onto stage.Director Trevor Nunn and designer John Napier have created a stripped-back world where a sparse furniture and a sketched, projected backdrop are all the actors have to work with. As a result, the claustrophobia of conducting an affair under your boss's roof is completely lost.Better is the war-torn second half, where ingenious staging creates trenches, tunnels, and an officer's mess. Here, the ensemble really starts to work: the camaraderie between the soldiers is brilliantly played out against the shocking conditions of the conflict. Lee Ross shines as Jack Firebrace, a young sapper, always ready with a joke and a song despite suffering tragedies at home and in the trenches.Wraysford becomes a fluky survivor, so hardened by death he seems to escape it. Before the battle of the Somme, he predicts "some crime against nature is about to be committed." Barnes, now moustached with an almost painfully stiff set jaw, is a striking contrast to the young lover we saw earlier.As the novel's modern section is cut, it falls to Isabelle's sister, Jeanne to bring some harmony to the ending. Zoe Waites brings a lovely mix of strength, humanity and quiet optimism to the character.With Birdsong now on the A Level reading list, there's probably a future for this play in the West End with ensuing discussions about the futility of war, novel adaptation and so on... But if you want the full, brilliant, heart-breaking Birdsong experience, this show is no substitute for reading the book.Birdsong plays at the Comedy Theatre until 15 January. Tickets from £20 to £49.50. Call 0844 871 7622 or visit www.birdsongtheplay.com to buy tickets or find out more information.
Theatre Review: Birdsong @ the Comedy Theatre
Last Updated 29 September 2010