The Lowry, Salford – until Saturday 7th April 2018. Reviewed by Julie Noller
Birdsong the story of love and lives between three generations of the same family, before and during the First World War and beyond to the 1970’s was written by Sebastian Faulks, in his words no thought was given to adapting this 503 page epic into the wonderful and extremely breathtaking saga that moved many to silently cry. Thanks to Rachel Wagstaff first reading Birdsong on her journey to school, her dramatisation is the simple retelling of life at war, how lives become intertwined, how war in it’s darkest, loneliest hours brings people together. Relationships are not just conducted face to face but she examines those relationships conducted via letter, chats with a higher being, the inhumanity of the wails and sobs of boys who were just yesterday probably playing marbles and now were facing the prospect of death in the name of King and Country. This is the fourth and final tour of Birdsong to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice in 1918. I am sure that final performance will be just as moving in every way as the one tonight.
The stage is simply lit to reflect the dark, dank trenches, yet above us as just in life of the times the image of crosses, barbed wire and reality never leaves our eye line. War hangs over us and consumes our every breath. The love story between Isabelle and Sebastian is not the main focus of this adaption just merely another relationship to be explored, including the relationship Sebastian has with himself. It strikes me that we see parallels with life in Britain during the early twentieth century on the stage. There’s the life upstairs with the officers and life downstairs with the tunnellers, however what begins as an us and them situation slowly becomes a we as respect and even love develops.
Tim Treloar returns to the role of Jack Firebrace for which he was rightly nominated for a Best Actor Award in 2013 Manchester Theatre Awards. He leads his life with dignity and respect never faultering from the job he knows will probably in all honesty never see him return home. Yet he never loses his way he holds on to hope of one day playing football with his young son John. The saddness he feels on reading of the death of John, you feel within the audience to be surrounded by men yet feel so alone. It’s heartbreaking. Tom Kay as Stephen Wraysford brings to life a character lost to himself, not feeling he belongs and living life as one man but not for his men. It is being saved by Jack leader of the tunnellers and the ensuing relationship, you can’t quite call it friendship that makes us warm to Stephen. He is a disjointed figure torn between those gypsy roots and honouring a Guardian who paid for him to attend the so called posh schools, this is the difference between Jack and Stephen. That near death experience is where this drama moves pace, we switch between pre-war France to war torn France. Stephen so young and innocent yet so blindly without thought of consequence lusts after and begins an affair with young married Isabelle Azaire. Isabelle is played boldly by Madeleine Knight she is a strong yet weak woman, you wonder did she ever love Stephen or was it escapism she craved? It was a simple time where everyone knew their place before time and boundaries became blurred.
There are moments throughout where the audience appears stilled, my breath slows and I feel lost myself. Drawn into a world long ago lost, retold to those of us too young and as is all too familiar no living relative to sit and listen too, this is an important story to share. The saddness and the bleakness if only for two hours needs to be felt by all. Alfie Browne-Sykes has the ultimate breath taking moment, the men all know, we the audience know and finally he admits he is only fifteen. Barely old enough to be out of the house alone yet expected to be a man in the fields of Flanders. You want to reach out to him, hold him, hush him. Maybe that’s because I am a Mother. No one answers his cries because they are trying to compose themselves. Just before the whistle blows, you question why someone so young would shoot themselves. I cried. For the lost lives and tortoured souls. The haunting melodies of musician James Findlay are simple but stunning, and bring another dimension to an already incredibly moving period drama. Liz Garland as Jeanne Fourmentier, Isabelles sister, helps Stephen finally find himself and peace as she makes him stop and simply listen and it strikes me that throughout this horrible war and before and after all the change; Change to the landscape in some instances irreversibly, changes in people, lost and scared. The one thing that remains is the birds will always return to sing their song. Birdsong should come with a full mascara warning and indeed a packet of tissues to dab away those tears. But cry you must because this story of love and lives deserves to be told and enjoyed.