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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Comedy


  Ben Barnes and Genevieve O'Reilly/ Ph: Johan Persson

I wonder if the producers hesitated before installing a subject of such unbearable poignancy as Birdsong’s into a theatre called the Comedy. Not that this venue has not seen its fair share of tragedies, but the First World War is one of those subjects, and the Somme one of those territories, where anything that trivialises is rightly seized upon as a desecration.
Sebastian Faulks’ romantic novel is above all else conscious of a duty of care over its subject, as is this stage version adapted by Rachel Wagstaff. During the five-minute interlude between the second and third acts, a projected roll call of names belonging to a tiny fraction of the dead – their names, ranks and units – scrolls in alphabetical order over the safety curtain.
By then, Faulk’s gallant English hero Stephen has arrived in the French town of Amien and taken temporary lodgings in the house of a factory owner who abuses his beautiful wife Isabelle (Genevieve O’Reilly) and his starving employees. The inevitable love affair serves first as a preamble, then as backdrop to the meat of the play, which vaults forward six years to 1916.
Stephen is a jaded officer whose men are a dwindling regiment of machine fodder. You would have to be hardhearted in the extreme to remain unmoved by the camaraderie of these men – the sappers who went over the top and the "sewer rats" who dug beneath the German lines. John Napier’s design delivers a genuine coup de theatre as the action moves from peace to war, but is only partially successful in evoking the nightmarish claustrophobia that these miners-turned-soldiers endured.
Still, Lee Ross and Paul Hawkyard almost steal the show as brave tunnelers Jack and Arthur. A held, silent stare is all that needs to pass between these two to understand their bond.
But the sense throughout Nunn’s characteristically long though skillfully paced production is that it is not story but history that that makes us weep here. Could it have ever been different? Well, think back to a previous drama at The Comedy for the proof that it could.
R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End tackled the same subject with a good deal more tension than offered by Birdsong. Shorter and spanning just four days instead of Birdsong’s nearly 10 years, that play has it all – the generals’ callous disregard for the lives of their soldiers, the difference in class that separated the officers from their men and the common humanity that bound them together. All this is in Birdsong, too. But as a memorial to the fallen, Journey’s End sets a standard that Birdsong gets nowhere near.

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