Birdsong

Date 13th October 2018
Society Winton Players
Venue Festival Hall, Petersfield
Type of Production Play
Director Roger Wettone

Report

Author: Mark Donalds

This production of Birdsong, adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff from Sebastian Faulks’ best-selling novel of the same name, is a most appropriate way to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. It takes place on the Somme between 1916 and 1918 and focuses on Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford and an experienced tunneller, Sapper Jack Firebrace. As they endure the battles, Wraysford recalls happier times in Amiens before the war with his lover Isabelle, while Firebrace mourns the death of his son John from diphtheria.

The dramatic and flexible set (great credit to "The Bodgers") provided the background to every scene, allowing swift changes between the gritty realism of the trenches and the suburban affluence of the Azaire’s house. The underground tunnels were simply, but most effectively brought to life with clever lighting, which somehow gave an almost tangible feeling of claustrophobia. The lighting throughout was subtle and appropriate, creating a good atmosphere, along with well-chosen costumes of the right period, and some spectacular pyrotechnics.

Mark Spiller, as Wraysford, gave a good portrayal of the officer’s coldness towards his men and his determination to stay at the front because he had nowhere else to go. Although his characterisation was strong, he didn’t quite convince me of the intensity of his love for Isabelle. Simon Stanley, as the ever-willing Firebrace, really made us feel his grief for the loss of his son. His strong friendship with fellow soldier Arthur Shaw, confidently played by Joff Lacey, was well developed and most touching. John Edwards, as the chirpy Welshman Evans, had an assured touch, and his desperation at the loss of his younger brother was one of the most emotional moments in the play, equalled only by Tipper’s suicide. Ben Bedford, as the under-age Tipper, was spot-on as the keen youngster who cannot cope with the reality of war. Joanne Stephenson played Wraysford’s lover Isabelle Azaire with great veracity and one felt that although she might have loved him, he was really being used to enable her escape from a cruel and loveless marriage.

Having recently visited the Thiepval Memorial, which lists seventy-two thousand men who died on the Somme, I can honestly say that this play was just as effective at bringing home to us, one hundred years later, the immensity of the loss that occurred. All the more tragic because it was not the “war to end all wars” that they hoped it would be.  It takes an experienced director to handle a challenging play like this and Roger Wettone was the right person for the job. He steered a steady course through the emotional highpoints, while allowing the trench humour to come out and lighten the darker moments.

Well done Winton Players for such a salutary reminder of the futility of war.