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Oxford Playhouse

I have a lot of good to say about the acclaimed touring production of Birdsong, but also a major quibble.

The actual production itself is exemplary: professional, well-crafted, and totally smooth. I like very much the set design by Victoria Spearing, finding it totally serviceable in allowing the action to switch gears between ordinary life and trench life as well as between peacetime and wartime. One also has to praise the evocative lighting (by Alex Wardle for Charcoal Blue LLP), the conjuring of the bombardments and the dust and smoke and horrors of the trenches of the First World War, the believable evocations of the experiences of the soldiers (both the boredom and the horrors) stimulating one to imagine even more than what is shown on the stage.

I thought the directing by Alastair Whatley (revisited and revised for this new production by Charlotte Peters) was very strong and served the actors well. Tim Treloar makes a memorable impression as Jack Firebrace and Tom Kay is excellent as Stephen Wraysford, conveying a range of emotions from obsessive passion through British stiffness through a kind of shell-shocked coping. Madeleine Knight as Isabelle and Olivia Bernstone as both Lisette and a Prostitute stay in the imagination, as do Alfie Browne-Sykes, Martin Carroll Riley Carter and the rest of the actors. So there is much both to admire and enjoy.

My main quibble is that the play is constructed and therefore presented very much as an old-fashioned West End Theatre piece, pre-Oh, What a Lovely War! It took a lot of Act One for me to become engaged by it because it was, somehow, so predictable. The craftsmanship works against the play at first, I believe, and makes it somewhat unexciting. The story of the romance between Stephen Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire struck me as being somewhere sub-Madame Bovary while the war aspects of the story, though much more convincing and appealing, struck me as being too heavily in debt to Journey’s End which seems to me to do it better.

The play by Rachel Wagstaff from the successful Sebastian Faulks novel has been performed regularly since about 2010 and has been revised heavily at least once. Ultimately, it does work. I felt the second half was stronger, the material was better presented; and I very much liked the climactic scene between Tim Treloar’s Jack Firebrace and Tom Kay’s Stephen Wraysford.

If you know the novel, you might be disappointed that the modern-day framework is completely missing; but it probably would have been one timeframe too many for a stage play.

In a way, it’s the script that makes me quibble, and maybe that simply goes back to the novel. But the adaptation seemed to me to be too safe, too much as one would expect for this material. That said, it is a strong enough evening in the theatre. I enjoyed the professionalism of everyone involved and felt that the whole thing came together rather well by the end.

  • Drama
  • Adapted for the stage by Rahel Wagstaff from the novel by Sebastian Faulks
  • Directed by Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters
  • Cast includes: Tim Treloar, Tom Kay, Olivia Bernstone, Alice Brittain, Martin Carroll, Madeleine Knight, Alfie Browne-Sykes
  • Oxford Playhouse
  • Until 21 July 2018

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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