Review: Birdsong at West Yorkshire Playhouse

By May 20, 2015

Theatre & Dance.

[Image credit: Jack Ladenburg]


As a young pacifist I was once asked to lay a wreath of white poppies (that is, for the fallen on both sides) at a Remembrance Day ceremony. As I lay the flowers at the cenotaph floods of thoughts for the tragedy and immense loss overcame me. I was particularly honoured when a message came back to me via another CND member that a wheelchair-bound war veteran had commented that my small symbolic gesture had been the only one that day that had real heartfelt dignity.

Similarly Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong in this stage adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff – in the centenary year since the war that was meant to end all wars – can be said to have that sense of honouring the dead without morbidity or hopelessness. It benefits from a star performance by Edmund Wiseman as lieutenant Stephen Wraysford. His tragic tale goes back and forth from his experiences on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918 and back to 1910 in Amiens, France.

It is in Amiens that he encounters Isabelle Azaire (impeccably performed by Emily Bowker), with whom he falls in love at first sight. The fact that she is a married woman does not deter them from a tempestuous affair, and it is this that Wraysford clings on to in his darkest hours at war. This is very much an ensemble piece but other stand-out roles are brought to us by ex-Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace, a cockney ex-miner whose son at home is hospitalised; and Max Bowden as the nervous and twitchy Tipper.


[Image credit: Jack Ladenburg]


Alastair Whatley’s direction is masterful, allowing the narrative to unfold naturally in its own course, and Victoria Spearing’s spectacular set dominates the proceedings, functional yet effective. Then Alex Wardle’s evocative lighting conjures up the desperateness of the war against the idealism of Wrayford’s romantic memories. And Dominic Bilkey’s sound design contrasts ear-piercing detonating bombs with the beatific birdsong of the show’s title.

This is a totally immersive experience with an extreme intensity and emotional depth obtained through stark realism in its depiction of the horrors of war. A plaintive and poignant cry for peace in our time that ends with Wiseman breaking the fourth wall to talk direct to audience in an impassioned finale.

Birdsong runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 23rd May, then touring to Portsmouth, Hereford, Crewe, Shrewsbury and London see

Rich Jevons