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Thursday, 25 April 2019
Birdsong | Progress Theatre, Reading | Tuesday, November 6
TAKE a seat for Steph Dewar’s Birdsong at Progress Theatre and watch a gripping and respectful tribute to those who suffered and died during the First World War.
The production has been a labour of love — the efforts of the cast and production team have brought something special to Reading to mark 100 years since the Armistice.
A carefully constructed set by Martin Noble evokes the dugouts of the Battle of the Somme, but also serves as the bourgeois Amiens home of the Azaires, where Stephen Wraysford (Charlie West) meets Isabelle (Steph Gunner-Lucas), the love of his life.
Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s 1993 novel seamlessly splices together two storylines telling of Stephen’s experiences before and during the conflict.
Stephen’s backstory is told through flashbacks, making great demands on Charlie West to convey radical changes of tone in quick succession, as we see him romancing his married lover in 1910 Amiens, then taking command as an officer in the trenches.
West carries this off admirably. Gunner-Lucas is arresting as the complex Isabelle. Peter Chamberlain is chilling as Rene Azaire, Isabelle’s bullying husband and the stern father of teenagers Gregoire (Jack Hygate) and Lisette (Esther Arzola).
The main narrative takes us to the battlefields where a bunch of soldiers and sappers are toughing it out, with a common purpose of seeing off the enemy. They support one another through banter and song, trying to maintain their spirits in unimaginable conditions.
Craig Daniels and Gareth Saunders are both superb as sappers Jack Firebrace and Arthur Shaw. Their friendship is acted out with great sincerity, showing the audience that humanity survives in the bleakest of circumstances.
Welshman Gareth Evans (Harry Petrie) tries to be the joker in the pack, but his vulnerability pokes through the thin veneer of joviality.
They all look after raw recruit Michael Tipper (Jack Hygate), who voices the terror the others feel but don’t express. Tipper’s death at just 15 years old epitomises the sheer brutality of war.
The valiant attempts of the band to look out for one another show men clinging to vestiges of decency when human kindness and horror collide.
For me, the most powerful scene was the still pause before they go over the top, when each character has his moment in the spotlight to voice what he is leaving behind.
This is a scene of great tranquillity, yet shot through with fear, apprehension and longing, demonstrating that in wartime everyone suffers — both those at the front and those waiting at home.
The most poignant subplot of Birdsong is the illness of Jack’s beloved son, John, from whom he is painfully separated. Craig Daniels’s portrayal of parental love vying with dutiful resilience was hugely impressive. Equally impressive were strong performances in supporting roles from Clare Bird, Alex McCubbin and Matt Urwin.
There is hope at the end. Stephen reconnects with Isabelle’s sister Jeanne (Emma Wyverne) and understands that there is still something to live for.
Everything about this production — the speech, movement, design, lighting, sound, costume and props — has been tackled with great care, resulting in a dignified and moving piece of theatre, tapping deep veins of emotion.
It was haunting from beginning to end, especially as — in a seat two rows in front of me — there was a perspex silhouette from the There But Not There project, which represents the men who went to war and never returned.
This riveting and compassionate drama demands to be seen, lest we forget the fallen of the war to end all wars.
15 November 2018
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