|'Birdsong': A Moving Production At The Richmond Theatre|
With excellent ensemble acting, writes Anne Flaherty
In the middle of a heatwave it's difficult to think about spending an evening in the theatre, but this powerful production of Sebastian Faulks's 'Birdsong' is well worth it a viewing and is particularly timely in this year of the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
The book (1993) is regarded as a modern classic, (dramatised by BBC with Eddie Redmayne in the lead role) and tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, whose pre-war love affair with beautiful and unhappily married Isabelle Azaire at her home near Amiens both sustains and tortures him through the dreadful weeks of the Somme.
Edmund Wiseman ( Stephen Wraysford) and Emily Bowking (Isabell Azaire) Image - Jack Ladenburg
In this stage version by Rachel Wagstaff, the set is constructed with the stage in front of the entrance to a tunnel, with ladders to the world above, where crosses reach towards the sky. Subtle lighting effects ensure quick changes of atmosphere, to the French home of the Azaire family, a hospital ward, and a high balcony perched to the side where Isabelle appears intermittently in Stephen's dreams.
You can see the author of Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks, tread the boards in a cameo role as Sapper Wheeler, on Wednesday 1 and Thursday 2 July (the run continues until 4 July). The producers offered Sebastian Faulks the contract of a paid acting job, having seen his performance when he tried out the role for two nights at Bristol Old Vic in May. Sebastian was keen to recreate the role for a final time as he enjoyed himself so much in Bristol, where he delivered all of his lines perfectly to an outstanding response.
Edmund Wiseman (Stephen Wraysford) ably handles the role taking us on an emotionally-charged journey, overcoming self-pity and grief over being abandoned by Isabelle, (Emily Bowker) to stepping up to the mark as an officer and establishing comradeship with his men. The intensity of the relationships between the soldiers during the pressure of war is brilliantly sustained. Stephen is about to be sent home on leave when he hears they are to move towards Amiens, where he last saw Isabelle and he is desperate to find news of her. He moves from not caring about living to desperately wanting to survive and beat the odds of dying on the battlefield.
The cast on stage- Pic Jack Ladenburg
The story is told through flashbacks and the action moves between the war-time life of the men, to the pre-war love affair, with the tension of the approaching battle mounting. The beauty of the birdsong in the rural fields is a counterpoint to the death and destruction which surrounds them.
One of the most dramatic episodes in Birdsong takes place under 'No Mans Land' when Wraysford and sapper Jack Firebrace (the excellent Peter Duncan) are trapped in a tunnel. Firebrace saved Wraysford's life following an explosion and now it is Stephen's turn to show friendship. Peter Duncan's portrayal of the chirpy East End sapper with the heart of gold was a particularly fine performance.
Men like Jack Firebrace were chosen for tunnelling because of their experience digging for the London Undergound but though better paid, they lived in constant danger of being blown up or dying if the tunnels flooded- over 3,000 men lost their lives tunnelling during the War.
Even though this is the final week of its five-month national tour , the cast showed no sign of flagging, and delivered an excellent ensemble performance. The folk songs sung and performed on melodeon and violin by James Findlay (winner of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award 2010 ) provided added poignancy at the right moments.
Cast members include Peter Duncan, Edmund Wiseman and Emily Bowker who head the cast along with Emily Altneu, Max Bowden (most recently seen as Justin Fitzgerald in BBC One’s Waterloo Road), Selma Brook, James Findlay, Roger Martin, Liam McCormick, James Staddon, Cloudia Swann and Alastair Whatley.
Sebastian Faulks was thrilled the show was re-mounted to tour again, and has previously said : “Both Rachel and I want this to be the definitive version of Birdsong on stage. The audience watch it and think, thank God I have never undergone all of this. These experiences are far outside the lives of most people but there is something about the way the production works which makes people identify and think, it could be me...”
Birdsong is directed by Alastair Whatley, with set design by Victoria Spearing, lighting by Alex Wardle for Charcoalblue and sound by Dom Bilkey.
June 30, 2015