Review: Birdsong is a powerful, moving story of love and war

George Banks as Stephen, Carolin Stoltz as Isabelle in Birdsong. Photograph: Jack Ladenburg
25 Mar 2014 @ 9.43 pm
| News
George Banks as Stephen, Carolin Stoltz as Isabelle in Birdsong. Photograph: Jack Ladenburg
George Banks as Stephen, Carolin Stoltz as Isabelle in Birdsong. Photographs: Jack Ladenburg

Review: Birdsong
Venue: York Theatre Royal, March 24

The 2014 tour of Birdsong, based on director Rachel Wagstaffe’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ classic novel, hits York Theatre Royal this week.

Birdsong tells the story of a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford (George Banks), who embarks on a passionate and dangerous affair with the beautiful, married Isabelle (Carolin Stoltz).

As the war breaks out, Stephen must lead his men through the carnage of the Battle of the Somme and through the sprawling tunnels that lie deep underground, while haunted by the memory of the love he once had.

A visually stunning set greets the audience for this production, featuring a skyline which instantly places you in the trenches of World War One, and yet with some excellent lighting and sound design it transforms into the country house of a wealthy French industrialist.

In these trenches we meet Jack Firebrace, played with a surprising (at least to me!) subtlety and nuance by Peter Duncan: yes, that Peter Duncan.

Firebrace is a “sapper”, responsible for digging tunnels and placing mines to impede the enemy attacks, yet our story starts with him covering sentry duty so the other soldiers can sleep.

Wraysford catches him sleeping on duty and so begins the intertwining of the two men’s destinies.

Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace
Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace

We skip backwards from 1916 to pre-war 1910, as Wraysford visits French factories to learn the business. Here he meets Isabelle, and it is in these time shifts that Banks, as Wraysford, really shines.

Using his physical skills to shift from horrifically injured war victim to strapping young man and back, Banks really helps to convey the change, aided by that excellent sound and lighting design.

As life in the tranches gets bleaker, Firebrace loses friends, Wraysford starts to lose his grip on reality, and the Battle of the Somme draws closer.

To tell you much more would spoil what is a very powerful second act. But I must mention the performance of Samuel Martin, whose beautiful voice soundtracks some of the most emotional moments, and Elizabeth Croft, who is magnetic as Jeanne (Isabelle’s sister).

As a representation of the horror of war, Birdsong conveys all that we know from the history books, while keeping it on a very human level.

I fought back a tear at the close.

Director Alastair Whatley brings us an illuminating insight into the personal experience of war, beautifully juxtaposed with the heartbreak of young love.

A terrific production for this 100th anniversary year. Catch it while you can.