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Review: Birdsong at Northern Stage in Newcastle

Sebastian Faulks's bestselling novel Birdsong is drawing big audiences to Newcastle theatre Northern Stage

Birdsong Production Northern Stage Spring Season preview

Birdsong at Northern Stage until Saturday

Back on the road after a successful tour last year, this adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s bestselling novel is packing them in.

And this is one show that has no trouble filling that huge stage.

It looks as if no expense has been spared in transforming it into the very image of a shelled-to-blazes town on the edge of the First World War Somme battlefield.

It has sound effects to match. We are treated to a small but (in this context) impressive taste of what Tommies in the trenches endured night after night, week after week.

Faulks turned his novelist’s eye on the sappers – many with a mining background – whose job was to tunnel beneath the enemy and blow them up.

Birdsong Production Northern Stage Spring Season preview

This aspect of his tale is faithfully recreated with that set incorporating a plausible tunnel and plenty of explosions that had us jumping like jack-in-the-boxes.

We meet a group of squaddies and sappers –”sewer rats” as boy soldier Tipper (Max Bowden) unwisely calls them.

The seasoned Jack Firebrace, vividly brought to life by Peter Duncan, puts the young man in order.

Presiding over all is young officer Stephen Wraysford – played by Newcastle-born actor Edward Wiseman – who is austere to the point of seeming rather odd.

Towards his men he is cool, ignoring Jack’s request for leave to see his desperately ill son.

Peter Duncan plays Jack Firebrace in the stage production of Birdsong
Peter Duncan plays Jack Firebrace in the stage production of Birdsong

Reasons for the oddness, aside from the constant shelling, do emerge. Before the war, he had an affair with Isabelle Azaire (Emily Bowker), unhappy wife of a French factory owner.

But what we get first in the novel emerges in the play in flashback, Stephen becoming tutor to the Azaire offspring and falling for their mother – somehow – as pieces of drawing room furniture are whisked on and off against the blasted landscape.

It’s a big operation, this whizzing back and forth in time and whisking of furniture, and you can see why Rachel Wagstaff, in her adaptation, left out the 1970s section of the novel.

Birdsong Production Northern Stage Spring Season preview

For director Alastair Whatley, who is also in the cast, it must have been a huge operation and the result is certainly not without reward. But amid the whizzbangs and shifting furniture and moments in time, I felt something of the passion was lost.

I understood that Stephen and Isabelle were caught in the white heat of an affair but from the moment of their slow motion coupling I never quite believed it.

David Whetstone

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