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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Comedy


  Ben Barnes and company/ Ph: Johan Persson

Adapting Sebastian Faulks' 1993 bestseller Birdsong for the stage was not a good idea and, as reworked by Rachel Wagstaff and directed by Trevor Nunn, it emerges as a palpable disappointment and something of a pointless exercise.
Iconic novels rarely make good plays, and this is no exception. The book's subject matter – the horrors of the trenches in World War I combined with a passionate love affair between an unhappily married Frenchwoman and a 20-year-old Englishman sent to Amiens in 1910 to learn about fabric manufacturing – requires the resources of the cinema to do justice to the material. Especially the claustrophobic climax in which a tunnel several feet below ground level is detonated. 
Birdsong is a big subject tailor-made for the big screen, and reading the book 17 years ago, I remember being struck by its cinematic possibilities. As, of course, was the author himself. But, according to a programme note, the project has been in development for the last 13 years as no one – including Faulks – has been able to fashion a workable screenplay from the novel.
What we have on stage at the Comedy is clearly an unsatisfying compromise with an endless mix of newsreel footage and still projections attempting to approximate the impact of a film. For nearly three hours we move from the idyllic surroundings of Amiens and the River Ancre in 1910 – the scene of the erotic trysts between lovestruck hero Stephen Wraysford (Ben Barnes) and the married Isabelle Azaire (Genevieve O'Reilly), to the trenches of the Somme and the bloody carnage of the battle of Ancre in 1916.
So many scenes – and with a few exceptions, so little impact. Act One, which deals with Stephen's arrival in Amiens, his introduction to the Azaire family – whose paterfamilias Rene (Nicholas Farrell) is a sadistic wife-beater – and his passionate romance with Rene's wife, is awkwardly written, awkwardly directed and awkwardly performed. However, the act, quite literally, ends with a bang followed by an ear-splitting canon blast that engulfs the stalls in a whoosh of smoke as a prelude to the war scenes that follow the intermission.
Fortunately, the dramatic temperature rises in the lengthy second half, which takes place between 1916 and 1918. Wraysford is now a lieutenant undergoing a crash course on life, love and death. Not only has Isabelle mysteriously ended their relationship, but the appalling conditions in the trenches and the wholesale slaughter of his men have left him bitter and distraught.
It is impossible not to be moved by the bloody events of World War I and terrible fate endured by the sappers as they went over the top to almost certain death. Indeed, the most moving moments in the play are shared between two ordinary soldiers (Lee Ross and Paul Hawkyard, both terrific) whose camaraderie and friendship touches the heart more affectingly than anything involving Stephen and his doomed affair with Isabelle.
But in a three-hour marathon, it's too little, too late.

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