Mrs Chrisparkle and I were probably amongst the last people on earth not to know what Birdsong is all about. We’ve not read the book; we didn’t see the TV adaptation; and we missed the play the first time around. My expectations were that it would be a World War One love story – all trenches and silk postcards, and probably with a very sad ending. Whilst there are some similarities, that doesn’t really capture it. Stephen Wraysford is a young lieutenant on the Somme – a fish out of water and with unresolved heartache concerning Isabelle, a married woman with whom he fell in love six years earlier. By use of flashbacks, you see how the relationship with Isabelle came about, and that developing story is contrasted with the here and now horror of the First World War.
I understand that the book has a complex time structure and so to adapt that to the stage is a challenge. Personally, I didn’t think it worked that well as a play. The first act in particular has so many backward and forward flip-flops in it, that you never stay in one place and one time long enough fully to digest the characters and build a dramatic tension. I confess I actually found the structure of the first act positively irritating. It was almost like it was trying deliberately to be clever, but at the sacrifice of the story and drama. It was very disjointed, and every time the story line got going, you’d flash back, or forward, and lose the momentum.
The first act is also way too long. Mrs C checked my watch after three-quarters of an hour – a sure sign that she was bored – but the interval curtain didn’t fall until another three-quarters of an hour had passed. The lady to my right, who hadn’t bought a programme, thought it was a one – act play and was about to go home when she twigged that people had left their coats behind just to go to the bar. Before the second act, she told me that it was only through discussions with her companions that she now had the remotest clue as to what was going on. Why had the daughter turned into a prostitute? Why had the father become a captain in the army? I showed her the programme note that says the play takes place on the Western Front, 1916-18, but also moves back to 1910, Amiens, as Stephen delves into his past. I also showed her that many of the cast double- or indeed triple-up their roles, so that if you’re not on the ball, you might get confused. “Ohhhh, that explains it” she sighed. She seemed to me to be perfectly intelligent, so I deduce that the play – or production – doesn’t communicate its message fully. Credit where it’s due though; the second act is hugely better. There are far fewer time changes, and those there are flow much more naturally. There was enough opportunity to really appreciate the characters and understand some of their fears and motives – and the acting generally improved too. Mrs C felt – and I tend to agree – that quite a lot of the acting in the first act veered towards the mahogany.
Victoria Spearing’s set is amazing; in such a tiny space as the diminutive Royal stage, it recreates the trenches, bars, tunnels, drawing rooms, bedrooms, hospitals, and so on. The set is also subservient to the action; it never upstages it by clever trickery, it’s just there fulfilling its proper purpose. Similarly Alex Wardle’s lighting design effortlessly moves from summer sunshine to claustrophobic tunnel and the use of silhouettes and offstage mines and bombs is very effective.
Absolutely central to the play is the character of Stephen, played by Jonathan Smith. He’s a mixed up character – rather selfish in some respects, generous and heroic in others; passionate in love; tormented by the past. Whilst Mr Smith really has the noble bearing that looks perfect for the role, I have to confess I didn’t really believe in the character all the time. I think the structure of the play, with all the time changes, really did not work in his favour. Neither Mrs C or I were convinced by his protestations of love for Isabelle – we didn’t get a genuine feeling of romance or passion; when they finally fall into each other’s arms and they indulge in the briefest of rather bizarre foreplay, I just felt he was going through the motions. It’s still a good performance, don’t get me wrong – I just thought he could have been a little bit angrier, a little bit more passionate; with deference to Dorothy Parker, he ran the gamut B to Y.
However, as Jack, Tim Treloar put in a superb performance. Full of honesty, clarity and insight, his controlled agony of missing his wife and son was extremely moving, and his support for his senior officer totally believable. There was a terrific dramatic intensity in his scene with Arthur, played equally well by Liam McCormick, when Arthur demands that Jack draws a picture of him. Now that was drama. When Jack cries out “he was my best friend”, that for me was the goosebump moment of the night. Other good performances came from Malcolm James, especially in his role as Captain Gray, Sarah Jane Dunn as Isabelle and Charlie G Hawkins as the terrified young Tipper.
I don’t like being negative about a production, and there are many good aspects about this show, but in the final analysis, it didn’t really do that much for me. Too much time flipping, too little sustained dramatic tension. My guess is that it simply works better as a book. I’ve read some other reviews of this production and I realise I am in the minority, most people seem to love it – so don’t trust me, see it for yourself, it’s touring until August!