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A CurtainUp London London Review

This is not a war, this is an exploration of how men can be degraded — Stephen Wraysford
Ben Barnes in the foreground and cast members of Birdsong (Photo: Johan Persson)
Rachel Wagstaff's stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks' First World War novel Birdsong condensed it down to a mere three hours playing time and leaves out the modern frame of the book, that of a girl researching her family's past. The novel has many admirers mostly for its war scenes rather than the initial adolescent romance and in the audience were those who were very excited about this first staging of the book which is directed by Trevor Nunn.

The play makes you feel as if someone were reading the novel to you with a backdrop of drawings and old photographs full of atmosphere but after a while it becomes rather repetitive and samey. I found myself watching the punting scene fascinated by the special effect of a moving backdrop making the punt appear to be moving along the river bank. I was so mesmerised by this that I found I hadn't been concentrating on what the characters had been saying.

The first act is set in France where twenty year old Englishman Stephen Wraysford (Ben Barnes) goes to stay near Amiens with a factory owner — Réné Azaire (Nicholas Farrell), his wife Isabelle (Genevieve O'Reilly) and Réné's daughter Lisette (Florence Hall) from his first marriage. In the middle of the night Stephen hears sobbing and the sound of someone being hit and later sees Réné coming from the room holding a slipper. Stephen falls in love with Isabelle and they have an affair. Réné is a cruel employer and his workers strike. Isabelle tries to help the workers' starving families by giving them food. Lisette discovers her stepmother and Stephen making love and is jealous and infatuated. There are picnics by the River Somme in this picture of rural France in 1910 in the area that is to become hell on earth with the ravages of warfare.

Birdsong seems to be two different plays. The second and third acts are set in France in the trenches of the First World War. The novel gets its title from something Stephen says, "Even when we blow each other to bits, the birds keep on singing." Stephen seems to be ornithophobic. His irrational fear of birds may be tied to an incident in his past when he became orphaned.

Of course nowadays with the prospect of nuclear warfare we wouldn't hear the birds singing at all. Stephen comes of age in the trenches where he is an officer and the play becomes about the indignities and horror of war and his own perseverance.

Another soldier we follow is ex-miner Jack Fairbrace (played by Lee Ross who has a fine singing voice) whose son dies from diphtheria while Fairbrace is in the trenches. There are effective scenes conveying the horror and carnage of this war with soldiers shut in tunnels underground owing much to John Napier's design.

Ben Barnes gives an epic performance as Stephen Wraysford but I found the scenario in Act One too convenient and contrived. Making adultery somehow permissable because Réné Azaire is a vicious wife beater and a cruel employer didn't suspend my disbelief, and I found the love scenes coy.

Zoe Waites is strong as Isabelle's sister Jeanne and I liked Billy Carter's factory organiser Lucien Lebrun.

Even with the dramatic staging in the trenches and John Napier's realistic tunnels, the camaraderie scenes of soldiers at play and the very loud bangs of warfare, I am not sure that Birdsong adds much to our understanding of that terrible war. However this will be the only hope for the play, half empty two nights after opening, to attract an audience of schoolchildren studying the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Journey's End and Birdsong as a part of their examination syllabus.

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Written by Sebastian Faulks
Adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Starring: Ben Barnes, Nicholas Farrell, Iain Mitchell, Genevieve O'Reilly and Lee Ross
With: Owain Arthur, Billy Carter, Florence Hall, Paul Hawkyard, Jack Hawkins, Gregg Lowe, Joe Coen, Jack Hawkins, James Staddon, Annabel Topham and Zoë Waites.
Design: John Napier
Costumes: Emma Williams
Lighting: David Howe
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Projection: Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington
Music: Steven Edis
Running time: Three hours with one interval and another five minute break
Box Office: 0870 060 6637
Booking to 15th January 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 30th September 2010 performance at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street London SW1 4DN (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)

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