Review: The horror of war brought to life in Birdsong

Bird Song at The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Bird Song at The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham - Credit: Archant

Katie Jarvis reviews the stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff and performed at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre.

Bird Song at The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Bird Song at The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham - Credit: Archant

Oh god. Oh horror. Wilfred Owen called it “the pity of war”. The sheer, gut-wrenching fear of explosions overhead; the letters from home, telling of domestic tragedy on top of the unimaginable tragedy of humanity that’s acted out before your deadened eyes; the sniper-fire when you’re on sentry-duty, so exhausted you cannot keep awake though your life depends on it. And it does. My god, it does.

I’ve written about war. I’ve listened to my great uncle’s accounts of being an 18-year-old soldier – barely more than a child – in the Battle of the Somme:

“The force of the explosion scattered these iron bullets like rain, which struck everything within reach. Lying on the ground on the crest of the shell hole, I suddenly felt as though I had been kicked by a horse in my rump. I lost consciousness.”

But never before have I experienced it – or felt as if I’d experienced it – so acutely as sitting in the silent-as-a-grave audience watching Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’s novel brought to life on stage at Cheltenham’s Everyman.

I like the theatre. But, to be truthful, it doesn’t often carry me away as a book does. This was the exception. At times, I buried my head in my hands. At times, I near-wordlessly pleaded and berated, ‘Don’t let him die! How can you let him die!’ Once, I wept.

This stage version is Rachel Wagstaff’s – and it’s superbly done. She first read the book, she says, on the bus to and from school. “I found it extremely moving and evocative and knew that, somehow, this book would always be important to me.” How brave; how courageous. Not only to adapt a complex narrative for the stage; but also to take the work of one of Britain’s best-loved, still-living authors and recreate it in other form. Even Faulks was initially sceptical. “Why try to make a painting from a sculpture?” he asked.

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It’s a good question. But it’s one that Wagstaff goes out of her way to answer, in this superlative adaptation. Directed by Alastair Whatley, it has all the bangs and whistles you’d expect of a war theme – the audience never failed to start in terror, alongside the soldiers, as each bomb exploded overhead. But it also has the subtlety of a great and terrible love story, which is played out alongside the great and terrible truths of meaningless conflict.

It’s not the only double-thread, of course. The two sides of Stephen Wraysford, our hero, are played out with stark brilliance by George Banks. He captures perfectly the dichotomy of a soldier, leading his troops, instilling discipline, against the sensitive, passionate lover whose beloved is also beset with enemies. Those two strands come together at the end in a scene so terrible, so dreadful: a union created and melded by blazing, fiery, desperate emotion.

I don’t want to give the plot away – I was one of the (probably few) audience members who hadn’t read the book – so all I’ll say is that every element you’d expect is here. There’s the raw recruit, terrified and naïve; the joking veteran, who passes the day like a character from Catch-22; and there’s the decent man on the street – in this case, Jack Firebrace, a miner, played so excellently by Peter Duncan – who places us all at the centre of the madness. Ordinary reactions in a place of hell.

Carolin Stoltz is Isabelle Azaire – not an easy role, but one which she carries with aplomb. Almost numbly above the action – never massively fleshed out – she is a foil to the development of Stephen. Indeed, though the love story is at the heart, to me it felt eclipsed, even stunted at times, by the horror of all else unfolding, played by such an outstanding, multi-faceted cast.

Indeed, everything is so well played. From the cleverness of the set – never once do I feel I’m not where I’m supposed to be: dancing, drinking, picnicking, buried alive with sticky blood drip-dripping from above – to the flashbacks that juxtapose the lives lost in such different ways.

The other tragedy of the night was that no one gave a standing ovation to this cast. No one stood up and applauded as if their lives depended on it. No one thanked them enough for an evening that not only entertained but explained the unexplainable a little bit more. A little bit more. The only reason I can think of is that, as well as being enriched by the experience, we were all utterly shell-shocked.


The play is being performed at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham between from February 17 - 22

To book, phone 01242 572573, or visit