Yesterday, I was lucky enough to receive a press ticket to the opening night of “Birdsong” at the Kings Theatre in Glasgow. Now, before I get into the review, I am a massive First World War literature geek – from studying “Dulce et Decorum Est” (the famous poem by Wilfred Owen) in school when I was 14, to reading book after book, poem after poem, and diary after diary covering the Great War for my university studies. I am slightly obsessed. So when I heard the stage adaptation of Birdsong was coming to the Kings, I jumped at the opportunity to go.
Birdsong has been voted one of the greatest books of all time, and with the recent drama series (starring Eddie Redmayne) a whole new generation of fans have jumped on the Birdsong bandwagon. But just how would a novel, that spans three generations and a time span from 1910 – 1970’s transfer to the stage?
Rachel Wagstaff’s stunningly beautiful adaptation of the novel is 2 and a half hours of heartbreak, tears and goosebumps, with a few laughs thrown in, acted out incredibly by every member of the cast.
The story centres on young Englishman Stephen Wraysford (Jonathan Smith) who embarks on a dangerous affair with a rich factory owner’s wife, Isabelle Azaire (Sarah Jayne Dunn formerly of Hollyoaks fame) in pre-war France. When the First World War breaks out, Wraysford finds himself at the Battle of the Somme. The play follows the British troops at the front from 1916-1918 but also has flashbacks into Wraysford’s past and memories of his time with Isabelle, in Amiens in 1910.
There is quite a lot of movement through time within the play. Sometimes these are set up separately, but often two time spans are acted out parallel to each other – a great testament to the company’s acting skills and in particular to Smith who was outstanding at portraying the change in time simply through body language alone. This is where I think having read the novel and seen the television series really helped me, as I knew exactly what was happening. But, overall, it is easy to keep up with and understand, through the fantastic acting and simple scene changes.
The set itself is very simple but extremely effective. Through the use of incredible lighting the set comes alive and the audience is sucked in to both the feeling of claustrophobia within the tunnels, to the romance and passion of Wraysford and Isabelle’s first embrace and then on to the feeling of sheer terror and helplessness as the boys are going over the top at the Somme. It is beautiful.
Caution must be taken by audience members of a nervous disposition as there were a couple of moments where I very nearly jumped out of my skin (and over the balcony!) but what else is to be expected from a play portraying the First World War?
Jack Firebrace (played by Tim Treloar) also has to be noted. His performance as a tunneler at the front line dealing with death, loss and heartache both in his life at home and in the trenches is superb. The use of narrative through letters from the soldiers and their families is extremely poignant, in particular those of Firebrace and his wife, which also helps to give the story another dimension.
The cast works incredibly well together. Smith (Wraysford) is a compelling and believable addition to the acting world. He is truly exceptional in this play and a stand out star. Dunn (Isabelle) portrays her character with a sensitive and heartbreaking understanding that easily gets the audience hooked.
Also, recognising the relevance of the play at present, with ongoing conflicts around the world – the tour is supporting Help for Heroes – an amazingly worthwhile charity – and collection buckets are set up at the end of the show for donations.
Overall, this show is a stunningly poignant adaptation of an incredible novel. The acting, the writing, the directing, the music. It is beautiful. A must see.
And it is all set to the background sound of…. Birdsong.
Birdsong is showing at the King’s Theatre from 8th April – 13th April including two matinée performances on Wednesday and Saturday. Tickets can be bought here –
The Southside Girl x