Opening Night Verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2
Reviewed by Matt Forrest
It’s a bold move by anyone’s standards to take a 503-page novel and attempt to turn into a 2 ½ hour play: especially one the scale and volume of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, so a great deal of credit must go to writer Rachel Wagstaff for this brave choice.
The story shifts back and forth between 1910 and 1916 and focuses on three central characters. First there is Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar), a loving husband and father out on the frontline of the Somme, digging underground tunnels for the British in an attempt to gain the element of surprise on the German soldiers. Jack is like a Father figure to his troops: however when news reaches him from back home that his own son his unwell, he wants leave to go and visit. However a chance encounter and near death experience with Lieutenant Stephen Wrayford (Tom Key) would see the two men strike an unusual bond and friendship: Firebrace the warm hearted working man and Wrayford, the cold, distant serving officer.
But what made him so distant in the first place? The answer to this lies in 1910, France, where Wrayford is starting life in the textiles business. Wrayford is staying with a wealthy but cruel factory owner, his wife Isabelle (Madeline Knight) and family. It is here that Wrayford can see that the marriage is an unhappy one, and soon he and Isabelle fall in love and thus a passionate affair ensues.
Back in 1916, we see Wrayford begin to recover from his ordeal, however still haunted by images of Isabelle, we zig-zag between 1910 and 1916 to find out what really happened to him to make him the way he is now.
From the moment the lights come up, and you see Victoria Spearing’s fantastically haunting set design: complete with barbed-wire fence resembling a cross, you know you are in for a roller-coaster ride of emotions, one that will leave you with a smile on your face one moment and shocked to your core the next. The near deafening sound design my Dominic Bilkey creeps up on you and throws you headlong into the full horrors of war: however always in the chaos and calm is the haunting sound of Birdsong: the only true constant of the play.
The cast are exceptional throughout with most playing dual roles. They must barely get time to breathe with constant costume and set changes: it really is a team effort like a band of brothers/sisters off to war that you cannot help but be bowled over by the warmth, humour and pathos each one brings to their roles. There are a few mis-placed accents here and there, but these are very minor quibbles in what is a truly and engrossing piece of theatre.
The relationship between both Stephen and Isabelle, and then Jack and Stephen is what drives this production forward. You firmly invest in the love/obsession Stephen and Isabelle have for each other, as well as the moving friendship between Jack and Stephen and this is firmly down to the impassioned performances of the leads who all give captivating performances.
This is what theatre should be: engaging, entertaining, leaving you shocked and entertained: after the curtain call and the applause had died down and the audience shuffled silently out of the Quays Theatre: that said more about the impact this play had then any reviewer ever could.
Birdsong as the Quays Theatre Lowry until Saturday 7th April, tickets Available here.