REVIEW: Birdsong (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, August 3)

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A powerful and poignant stage version of one of the best novels of the last 25 years reaches the end of a long national tour at Brighton this week – and it deserves to have a crack at the West End.

The acclaimed 1993 World War One novel by Sebastian Faulks has been incredibly well adapted by Rachel Wagstaff and it is a testament to the play and to the Original Theatre Company production that at the end of its two hours 40 minutes running time the audience is numbed by emotion rather than by boredom.

The story of young lieutenant Stephen Wraysford (a lively and compelling performance from relative newcomer Jonathan Smith – promising much for the future), his passionate affair with his employer’s wife in pre-War France, and the hardening of his character in the trenches and Battle of the Somme is told in a way that pulls no punches, contrasting innocence with the trauma and cost of warfare.

Getting rid of the book’s present day attempts by the hero’s grand-daughter to discover more about his wartime exploits and shedding the character of his friend Captain Weir allows a sharper focus on Wraysford, his memories of the relationship with Isabelle in 1910, and the contrasting story of miner turned sapper Jack Firebrace, bound to the young officer who saves his life in more ways than one during a terrible conflict.

If Sarah Jayne Dunn seems a shade too young for the novel’s Isabelle, she nevertheless gives an assured performance. She radiates beauty and her relationship with young Wraysford in Amiens is entirely believable and in many ways her strength as she stands against her cruel husband (a nicely-judged performance by Malcolm James) is even sharper than in the book.

As Firebrace, the wonderful Tim Treloar gives one of the theatrical performances of the year – bluff, likeable, dependable and loyal, yet torn apart emotionally by the death of his young son at home. It says much about this production, and Alastair Whatley’s tight and sensitive direction, that this towering performance still doesn’t overshadow the rest of the fine 12-strong company, who switch between a number of roles effortlessly.

It is a daring decision to cast the excellent Arthur Bostrom (a favourite from ‘Allo ‘Allo) in a slightly comic pompous role which requires him to deliver lines in a French accent, especially to a character called Rene, but the audience titters melt away as Bostrom inhabits that and other roles commandingly.

Charming performances too from Poppy Roe as Jeanne, Tim van Eyken and Joshua Higgott providing much of the haunting music in character, and Charlie G Hawkins as the nervous young soldier fearful of dying on the unquiet Western Front.

There’s a breathtaking atmosphere built up by the combined forces of Victoria Spearing’s set design, Alex Wardle’s lighting and Dominic Bilkey’s sound, which manage to create each mood skilfully, often with little time to work on.

The production is enormously faithful to the spirit of the novel, and it may just be that – with the necessary speed of the narrative – some knowledge of the book is an advantage, just to understand some of the whats, the whos and the whens. If there is a slight disappointment, it is in the somewhat rushed scene of the Jewish German solider rescuing Wraysford as the Great War’s final gunfire ceases.

That aside, this is a quality and fluid production which never drags and highlights so well the tragedy, personal cost, and sometimes humour of such wartime horror in a way which is never cloying but always fully human.

Brighton’s audiences will have the added treat on Thursday evening of seeing Sebastian Faulks in a walk-on cameo appearance as one of the soldiers as the production marks its 200th performance.

David Guest