Progress Theatre are commemorating 100 years since the end of World War I with a production of Sebastian Faulks’ Great War epic ‘Birdsong’, which has been adapted and condensed for the stage by playwright Rachel Wagstaff.
‘Birdsong’ is a romance story set around the traumatic events of WWI. We follow a troupe of soldiers in the trenches at Ypres and at the Battle of the Somme, in particular the reserved and isolated Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford, played with clipped British reserve by Charlie West.
The story flashes back and forward in time between the trenches and Stephen’s pre-war life as he holds on to the memory of his lost love Isabelle and the 1910 summer in Amiens where they met.
If you’ve read Faulks’ novel, you’ll know there’s also a plotline involving later generations attempting to understand what their ancestors experienced in the war. That strand is jettisoned here to focus on the soldiers involved in the fighting. It centres the action, but also limits the time of the play, which is for the best – at 140 minutes, it’s already quite long.
It may be long, but it’s definitely not drawn out. This production from Progress is staged with thoughtful direction by Steph Dewar who presents the horror of war alongside the grim boredom of life in the trenches, but also the camaraderie of the troupes, the jokes and the drinking games, the letters to home. She spotlights a number of cinematic moments, especially as the men are captured in silhouette as they prepare to go over the top. It’s a particularly harrowing visual of young, unprepared men bracing themselves for slaughter.
Staging is also creative. A clever split-level set design conjures up the cramped sapper-built tunnels under No Man’s Land and the grubby, imposing trenches with only a few sandbags, wooden ladders and hidden compartments. It’s stark and claustrophobic.
Sound design is also worth highlighting, lifting the reserve of the British stiff upper lip with the sounds of war. A soundtrack of the thunderous roar of the guns is intercut with the hopeful chirp of birdsong and the soaring strains of Barber’s Adagio for Strings – which really tugged on the tear ducts as the first half ends.
‘Birdsong’ is a many-layered play and the shifts in time and stories are occasionally difficult to follow, but the cast keep us engaged throughout.
Charlie West is strong but solitary as Stephen Wraysford, leading his men over the top and through the sprawling tunnels underground. Stephen’s lover, the married Isabelle Azaire is captured with a sensitive, but tortured vulnerability by Steph Gunner-Lucas.
Craig Daniels is also heartbreaking as Jack Firebrace, the London Underground tunnel digger who can’t return home to be with his dying son and who only signed up to the sappers because the pay was better for his family. Through Jack we see the individual pain caused amongst the colossal scale of the loss of life during World War I.
‘Birdsong’ is a thoughtful, moving play dealing with the reality of war, the hurt of men involved and the huge loss of life. But it also highlights turn of the century industrialisation, the rights of women, shell shock and class divides. It’s an evocative and poignant experience, and one well worth seeing this year.