Review: Superb version of Faulks’s novel

Birdsong at York Theatre Royal - The cast prepare to go 'over the top' in a dramatic First World War scene.
Birdsong at York Theatre Royal - The cast prepare to go 'over the top' in a dramatic First World War scene.

Review by Vicky Carr

Birdsong, York Theatre Royal

Taking one of the most successful novels of the last 50 years to the stage might be seen as a risky project to take on.

Since it was first released in 1993, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong has featured on numerous lists of the best British books and there have been several attempts to transfer it to radio and screen, with varying degrees of success.

Adapting such a well-known and much-loved story for the stage could have proved an impossible task.

The most affecting scenes in the novel, set in the First World War, are those when the lead characters are fighting in the trenches and going “over the top” to face German fire, or when the miners, whose task is to tunnel under no-man’s land, become trapped in the soil. How could they possibly be recreated on a stage?

Surprisingly, the play works very well – not least because it does not stick rigidly to the structure of the novel.

Playwright Rachel Wagstaff and director Alastair Whatley have kept the key elements of the story while allowing themselves the freedom to be creative with it.

As well as the dark, pressing atmosphere of the trenches under constant fire, the set allows the cast to recreate a luxurious pre-war French mansion house and the desperate, panicky feeling of the soldiers as they drink away their fears in a bar the night before they return to the front.

The elements of the story set in peacetime are shown in a series of flashbacks for lead character Stephen Wraysford (George Banks), whose feverish dreams and memories come to him as he lies injured in a field hospital.

The transition from present reality to painful memory is cleverly done, with effects as simple as a change in light used to ensure the audience always knows which part of the story is being told.

The most touching scenes, however, are those featuring Jack Firebrace (Peter Duncan), a miner who receives increasingly bad news from home about the health of his young son – yet is not allowed to return home to see him.

Jack’s transition from a God-fearing man who prays for the life of his son to a hopeless atheist who has lost all sight of any purpose to his own life or those of the thousands of men killed around him is deeply sad and very powerful.

Music and song are used effectively to reflect the sadness and desperation of the soldiers. The mellow notes of The Lord Is My Shepherd fill the theatre as the play draws to its conclusion, led beautifully by Evans (Samuel Martin) with support from the whole cast, and seem to echo long after the curtain falls.

Birdsong as at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, March 29.