reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 1 February
A largely re-cast revival of Rachel Wagstaff’s revised stage version of Sebastian Faulks’ novel has just started a national tour. it’s the fourth , and we’re told, the final one. Tim Treloar returns in dominant form as Jack Firebrace, the First World War sapper recruited from his peacetime job as a tunneller for London’s underground network expansion.
Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters’ production uses Victoria Spearing’s two-level, multi-location set to take us from the grim reality of trench warfare along the Somme in 1916 to the apparently idyllic world of prewar Amiens. Only apparently – for industrialist René Azaire is a dictator alike to his children and his wife.
Madeleine Knight is Isabelle, the abused trophy wife who captures the heart of Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay), who is sent to Amiens by his guardian to learn about mechanical innovations in 1910 and who finds himself six years later newly commissioned and on the front line.
The worlds of Firebrace and his fellow Tommies and that of the learning-on-the-job officers who command them are both distant and close. Wraysford has lost Isabelle and Firebrace knows from his wife’s letters that their only son John is in hospital with diphtheria, a near death-sentence in those days before antibiotics. They clash before each man recognises part of himself in the other.
It is subtly staged as flashbacks illuminate the grim confined present. James Findlay’s violin and melodeon playing shadows the action as the miscellany of characters step momentarily out of the underground doom to reveal fragments of their past life and personalities.
Treloar and Kay dominate and are thoroughly convincing. Knight’s Isabelle is overly subdued, in contrast to her precocious daughter Lisette (Olivia Bernstone); she may be the nominal heroine of the story but seems reluctant to step fully into its limelight. Women of all the combatant countries at home suffered, and this Faulks emphasises. But it was their menfolk who paid an even heavier price for what we now know was a short-lived peace.
Four star rating.
Birdsong runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 3 February with matinées on 1 and 3 February. The tour also includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre between 14 and 19 May.