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York Theatre Royal, York

Birdsong
5.0Reviewer's Rating

Birdsong combines the heartache of love with the heartbreak of war. The play goes back and forth from the trenches of the Western Front in 1916-18 to the French city of Amiens in 1910, where Stephen first meets his true love, Isabelle. While the temporal and geographical setting of the play is unstable, the action occurring across space and time, the narrative maintains an unwavering intensity that persists throughout the two-hour production.

Tom Kay, as Stephen, is fantastic – but unlike his own love-at-first-sight story, the audience really has to try to like Stephen. He is initially static, socially awkward and almost wooden, begging the question of whether this is a purposeful acting choice by Kay, or a case of the actor not measuring up. However, as the play continues, this question is thoroughly answered in Kay’s favour; as Stephen’s story is slowly revealed, his heart worn heavily on his bloodied sleeve, the character endears himself to the audience through Kay’s compelling performance. His honest and upfront demeanour brings a new dimension to a role of this intensity; instead of hidden subtlety and nuance, Kay’s overtly vulnerable portrayal brings something new to the part of the soldier.

There is a distinctive dream-like quality to the play; scenes bleed into one another, encouraging a sense of mutability and distortion rather than the clean resolution offered by clear scene changes. New scenes start before the previous one has quite finished, as characters are still dissolving into the wings – sometimes even remain on stage. Thanks to the skill of Movement Director Ste Clough, this fluidity accentuates Stephen’s restlessness, his nostalgia and constant recourse to his memories of Isabelle, which permeate the present-day of the narrative.

Tim Treloar, acting alongside Kay as the other protagonist, Jack Firebrace, gives an equally outstanding performance. With a Manchester Theatre Awards nomination in 2013 for Best Actor for the same role, it is no surprise that Treloar fills the northern character’s shoes with ease. Blending a boisterous masculinity with a soft heart of compassion and loyalty, Treloar commands the attention of the audience, alternately provoking uplifting laughter and unsettling silence.

Translating a dense novel which concerns itself with multiple characters into dramatic form can often make the narrative lose its power – as Faulks himself worried the stage adaptation of Birdsong would – yet Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation is fantastic. Not only does the play do justice to the main plot, it also gives life to minor characters such as Tipper, Rene and Jeanne, whose presence is somewhat lost in the novel. Even Faulks’ rhetorical devices, his manipulation of the novel form and use of doubling and symbolism, are transferred beautifully to the stage.

While Jeanne and Stephen’s chemistry could perhaps be dialled up slightly, this is the only flaw in the production. Meta-theatrical endings often run the risk of falling flat and ruining the final tableau; however, Birdsong’s finale is spine-tinglingly good, leaving the audience with an ethereal aftertaste which lingers as they leave the auditorium – a reminder of the horrible reality of war. The storyline is taut all the way through, unrelentingly highlighting the sinister effects of conflict, perfectly encapsulated in the omnipresent visual metaphor of the trenches upstage. Bringing together the themes of love, loyalty and war seems like a cliché waiting to happen, but Wagstaff’s adaptation delicately controls and explores these different strands. Brutal and poetic, Birdsong keeps the audience on their toes, weaving together thoughtful adaptation and direction to create a stunningly intense story of love in all its forms.

  • Drama
  • Composer: Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s 1993 novel
  • Director: Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters
  • Cast: Tim Treloar, Tom Kay, Madeleine Knight, Olivia Bernstone, Liz Garland, Alice Brittain, Alfie Browne-Sykes, Martin Carroll, Riley Carter, James Findlay, Jeffrey Harmer, Simon Lloyd
  • York Theatre Royal, York

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