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Review: Birdsong, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: February 18, 2014

By Jonathan Whiley

George Banks (Stephen Wraysford) and Carolin Stoltz  (Isabelle Azaire) from the 2014 touring production of Birdsong. Photo Credit Jack Ladenburg (6)

George Banks as Stephen Wraysford in Birdsong

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AN artist would struggle to paint a portrait of war as moving, accurate and utterly tragic as this adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong.

Every aspect of life, every nuance of emotion is wrung out like blood-soaked cloth in two and a half hours of absorbing drama.

To adapt such a much-loved novel, penned in 1993, is a risky business but in Rachel Wagstaff we are in safe hands.

Faulks’ sublime narrative centres on young Englishman Stephen Wraysford who embarks on a passionate affair with the beautiful Isabelle Azaire that turns their world upside down.

And it’s this love story that despite the unimaginable horror that engulfs them in the depths of the trenches, through the Battle of the Somme, as comrades fall in the dirt around them, emerges, as it should, as the most poignant aspect.

Credit must go to director and producer Alistair Whatley who manages to craft something so hard-hitting and powerful one moment and so touching, subtle, but heart-wrenching the next.

Romance is dealt with artistically. There is no token gesture of love, no false or cringe-worthy gesture of simulation. Rather they leap into each other arms, balletic and ultimately, quite beautiful.

Rarely does drama capture the scale of emotions in the way a book can delve deep into them over the course of 300 pages. This, though not perfect – at times scenes lacked the context they needed – did a remarkable job.

At the beginning we see the jovial nature of the troops, the jokes, the songs, the drink, the sense of place and duty.

But soon the letters from home come flooding in and the hope, much like the light in the claustrophobic tunnels, ebbs away.

Jack Firebrace, played magnificently by former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan throughout, captures it all in a tour-de-force performance.

We can almost feel the dirt beneath their fingernails, their heightened carnal desires, their sense of hope, loss, anger, frustration.

Special effects are frighteningly good – bullets, bombs and everything in between – and the script is well-balanced with lighter notes scattered liberally among intense confrontations.

Our young protagonist George Banks is perfectly suited in the role and brings a real gravitas that belies his years with the beautiful Carolin Stoltz (Isabelle) more than his equal.

Despite the almost customary dodgy French accents – almost comical in the hands of certain cast members – this is a piece of drama that genuinely moved me all the way to its sobering climax.

In the final moments the cast look towards the symbol of freedom – a bird singing despite the unimaginable carnage. The audience fell as silent as the battlefields of the Somme. And then rapturous, deserving applause.

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