Manchester Theatre Awards

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Birdsong

Rachel Wagstaff
Birdsong Productions Ltd with the Original Theatre Company
The Lowry Salford
03 April 2018 to 07 April 2018

The title "Birdsong" offers no clue to the content but was the inspiration of playwright Rachel Wagstaff to deliver not one but two stage versions  based on the best-selling novel by Sebastian Foulkes.

The original play followed the story in chronological order of a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) who was sent on business in 1910 to study textiles in Amiens and fell passionately in love with Isabelle, the wife of his host Rene Azaire, a cold controlling character. Indeed the couple eloped.

It was tear-jerking then but in this second version the story order has changed although not the characters. It begins in 1916 with Stephen Wraysford, working again near Amiens but as the army  officer in charge of a cramped dug-out adjacent to the trenches (I detected sound of a WWI aircraft  overhead) with a bunch of characterful recruits.

These men were engaged in vital war work - digging tunnels under the German mines and then blowing them up - thousands of lives were lost on both sides. Most of the British were recruited from expert diggers working on the early London Underground, hence two indispensable Cockney characters Arthur Shaw (Simon Lloyd) and Jack Firebrace (the tough lovable Tim Treloar). The reading of letters from home and his replies are heart wrenching, plus all their comrades letters back to Blighty on the eve of the Somme - hankies ready.

The major change is that memories of a past love affair are just that - dramatic interludes with all those original characters appearing to and including Stephen Wraysford himself, still yearning but lacking the aura of dedicated love for Isabelle, (the unhappiness of Madeleine Wright is palpable).

The Quays stage is not very big but designer Victoria Spearing has ingeniously worked the set to accommodate tunnel entrances, underground quarters, ladders to trench level, plus options to  include sets for those painful flashbacks to the past. A captivating evening and the cast deserving their full house.

Reviewer: Diana Stenson

Comments

Comment by Robert Beale

It's tricky to make a stage adaptation work with constant alternation between two time-frames, but this one does work: there's a lot of story detail there, but every word tells and it's not hard to follow. It's also effectively staged and includes some really good performances: Tim Treloar, Madeleine Wright and Tom Kay in particular.