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Birdsong At York Theatre Royal
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
Tim Treloar (Jack Firebrace) & Tom Kay (Stephen Wraysford). Photo by Jack Ladenburg
Birdsong, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff from Sebastian Faulks’s novel, has apparently been seen by over two-hundred-thousand people since it made its stage debut. An astonishing figure until you consider another - a million soldiers who were killed or maimed in the mere 141 days of the Somme Offensive. That was in 1916 and the play marked its ninetieth anniversary when it first appeared in 2006. Now, the final tour of Alastair Whatley’ revival is commemorating a happier anniversary – the end of that bloodiest and most senseless of all wars, in 1918.

A concluding remark by one of the hapless soldiers is to the effect that no one in the future will possibly understand the horrors they lived through. From curtain up, however, we do begin to understand them a little. They are writ large on the canvas, as it were, of Victoria Spearing’s magnificent set that has obviously taken inspiration from Paul Nash’s surrealist war-torn landscapes where gaunt crosses sprout jaggedly, girt with barbed wire. They are augmented by Dominic Bilkey’s ear-shattering sound effects and Alex Wardle’s ability to create the weirdest of lighting effects. We are never allowed to sit back and enjoy the performance because a bomb is always likely to explode, shattering the air, vibrating the theatre, scaring the hell out of us.

Birdsong. Photo by Jack Ladenburg
A tragic love story, told in a series of flashbacks spatchcocked into the on-going narrative about a group of sappers, concerns Stephen Wraysford’s doomed love for a married woman Isabelle. It is a love that originally springs out of pity for her being cruelly abused by her husband but which blossoms into an all-consuming passion that both torments him and sustains him through the horrors of the Somme.

Tom Kay puts in the performance of his career to date as the emotionally withdrawn officer promoted from the ranks, never happy discharging the responsibilities thrust on him and coming to lose all faith in humanity. Madeleine Knight judges Isabelle to perfection with a necessary restraint and an appealing stoicism. She is a married woman, surviving in a hellish world, almost as beset by the restrictions placed on women at the time by family ties and societal expectation as by her husband’s intolerable cruelty or the advancing Germans. Yet, with some modesty, her passions will out.

Jack Firebrace is perhaps the character we most warm to, as played by the outstanding Tim Treloar. He is the indomitably cheerful cockney, the unfailing optimist even in the face of every conceivable calamity he encounters as a sapper, leading fellow tunnelers under the German lines. He makes the best of everything, placing his faith in God, until he is overthrown by a low blow delivered back at home in London. It is the family tragedy that momentarily unhinges him, destroying his faith, not the present suffering.

Tom Kay (Stephen Wraysford) & Olivia Bernstone (Lisette). Photo by Jack Ladenburg
There are almost as many twists and turns in the plot as there are labyrinthine tunnels undermining the German defences. It is a large cast and there are many fine performances in this compelling, deeply moving adaptation, too many to mention. However, space must be found for Alfie Browne Sykes’s disturbingly affecting portrayal of the 15-year-old boy who enlisted passing himself off as older. He is, if you like, Wilfred Owen’s soldier in Dulce et decorum est, and there is nary a dry eye in the theatre when he meets his end. It is not giving too much away to reveal he shoots himself rather than go over the top on the Somme. This is war and one way or another most of them are going to die.

Speaking of the contemporary war poet, Wilfred Owen, we can’t forget he said, famously, he was writing about the pity of war, not its glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power. This play captures just this as much as any work of literature can.

Birdsong is at York Theatre Royal from 5th to 9th June 2018.

Birdsong At York Theatre Royal, 6th June 2018, 11:14 AM