While wanting to get out of my living room and into a real auditorium as soon as possible, this online show is a fantastic effort at producing theatre during lockdown.
Adapting her previous stage production for the internet, Rachel Wagstaff has an intelligent eye on what works on screen, using letters and prayers for effective solo scenes to camera. The film’s editor Tristan Sheppard benefits from the effective sound design (Dom Bilkey) and subtle backgrounds by David Woodhead, carefully focusing attention on fantastic performances.
If the final result is uneven, its problems are shared with the source material – Sebastian Faulks’ hit novel – exacerbated by Wagstaff’s slightly reverential approach to the text.
Faulks is closely involved with the project, serving as a narrator. That’s quite a coup… but not a successful one. As good his writing is, Faulks is not a performer and it might have been better to get a cast member to read his work. But the story is great and this World War I drama, focusing on soldiers who tunnelled under enemy trenches, is gripping stuff.
The production makes the most of the show’s two leads – sapper Jack Firebrace and lieutenant Stephen Wraysford – leading to magnificent performances from Tim Treloar (pictured top) and Tom Kay, respectively. Credit to directors Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters, who have done fantastic work with both leads and supporting cast, especially Max Bowden and Samuel Martin. Jack is the hero, and Treloar makes him a valiant figure. Meanwhile, Kay’s exploration of Stephen’s quirky edge adds intrigue, even danger, to the character.
The love story told alongside the battle of the Somme isn’t such a success, in truth it drags a little. While Madeleine Knight’s final scene is wonderful, Stephen’s adulterous romance with her character, Isabelle, has little chemistry. It’s hard when the performers can’t be in the same room. Isabelle’s cuckolded husband proves more interesting, as Stephen Boxer proves expert with the character’s threatening and dismissing remarks.
Maybe because the love affair feels hollow, having both the war and the romance described as a “crime against nature” doesn’t have the impact intended. Instead, it’s the characters journey into darkness that interests – more credit in particular for Kay – and provides the emotional power the show undoubtedly boasts. For all the technical accomplishment, that this comes from performances makes it cheering to note how much better Birdsong would be live.
Until 4 July 2020