May 9 2018 | By More

★★★☆☆     Timely

King’s Theatre: Tue 8 – Sat 11 May 2018
Review by Hugh Simpson

There is more than one large-scale depiction of World War One on stage in Edinburgh at the moment. While the juggernaut that is War Horse may cause Birdsong to be overshadowed, the returning touring production of Sebastian Faulks’s story at the King’s has much to recommend it.

If the end result is not always a convincing experience on stage, it is not Faulks’s fault. His much-loved novel is thoroughly untheatrical, and adapter Rachel Wagstaff has jettisoned large parts of the family saga. She has finally opted for a chronologically fractured narrative, where Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford’s experiences in the Western Front trenches are contrasted with his earlier relationship with Isabelle, the unhappy wife of a French industrialist.

Tom Kay (Stephen Wraysford) and Madeleine Knight (Isabelle Azaire). Pic: Jack Ladenburg

The result still does not always hang together. The love story has a great deal of work to do in order to match the visceral impact of the war scenes, while the second half is little more than an afterthought compared to the force of the first.

The cast has changed completely from the last time the production was here – with the exception of the singer and musician James Findlay, whose performance of Tim van Eyken’s beautifully chosen material is exemplary. Two directors are listed, with the name of Charlotte Peters added to original director Alastair Whatley, and it has to be said that the current version is slightly sharper, tauter and more emotionally coherent than before.

Much of this is down to the performances of Tom Kay and Madeleine Knight as Stephen and Isabelle. For their relationship to work dramatically, it has to rival the trench-bound strand for impact, and Kay and Knight come close to this. Wraysford’s buttoned-up, uncommunicative nature is a difficult thing to put across on stage while retaining interest, but Kay does it very effectively, with his periodic bursts of emotion all the more affecting as a result.

Knight, meanwhile, makes Isabelle’s frustrations and passions believable, to the extent that her actions seem excusable to the audience while remaining unfathomable to Stephen.


In the end, however, despite the performers’ best efforts, what works on the printed page never quite comes off on stage, with the parallels between the two stories seeming forced and unnatural.

Martin Carroll, Tom Kay, Jeffery Harmer & Madeleine Knight. Pic: Jack Ladenburg

Despite the foregrounding of the love story, in many ways the play’s central figure is ‘sewer rat’ Jack Firebrace, the Royal Engineer who is responsible for tunnelling under No Man’s Land in order to plant explosives. Tim Treloar (perhaps best known for his uncanny revival of Jon Pertwee’s Dr Who in audio dramas) provides a heartrending performance, by turns stoically dignified and brokenly uncomprehending. Simon Lloyd, as fellow sapper Arthur, turns in a performance of similar hidden depths.

The episodic structure of the piece means that there is a parade of characters who are rarely sufficiently developed, however hard the cast try. Some of them come across more as oddly-judged comic relief, complete with at least one far-from-convincing accent.

As the anniversary of the end of the war approaches, where this production does score very highly is in its depiction of the incomprehensible horror and futility of conflict. Kay’s Wraysford channels a despair that goes beyond disillusion or nihilism, with the character struggling to retain his humanity in the face of what humanity has come to represent.

When sabre-rattling brinkmanship passes for diplomacy, and those whose first instinct is to bomb are hailed as peacemakers, we need to be reminded of the past in order to avoid repeating it. At times what happens on Victoria Spearing’s war-ravaged set is on the harrowing side of poignant, but it probably needs to be.

Running time 2 hours 55 minutes including one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ.
Tuesday 8 – Saturday 12 May 2018
Daily at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat: 2.30 pm.
Tickets and details:

Birdsong website:
Facebook: @BirdsongTheTour.
Twitter: @birdsongthetour.

Birdsong on tour 2018:
Tue 8 to Sat 12 May Edinburgh
Kings Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
Mon 14 – Sat 19 May Cambridge
Arts Theatre
01223 503333 Book online
Mon 21 – Sat 26 May Durham
Gala Theatre
03000 266 600 Book online
Tue 29 May – Sat 2 June Glasgow
Theatre Royal
0844 871 7647 Book online
Tue 5 – Sat 9 June York
Theatre Royal/Takeover Festival
01904 623568 Book online
Mon 11 – Sat 16 June Derby
Derby Theatre
01332 59 39 39 Book online
Mon 18 – Sat 23 June Birmingham
The New Alexandra Theatre
0844 871 3011 Book online
Tue 26 – Sat 30 June Malvern
Festival Theatre
01684 892277 Book online
Mon 2 – Sat 7 July Tunbridge Wells
Assembly Hall Theatre
01892 530 613 Book online
Tue 10 – Sat 14 July Bristol
Old Vic
0117 987 7877 Book online
Mon 16 – Sat 21 July Oxford
01865 305305 Book online

James Findlay (Cartwright) and the company of BIRDSONG. Credit Jack Ladenburg


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.