Birdsong - Photo credit Jack Ladenburg

By Sebastian Faulks adapted for stage by Rachel Wagstaff
Directed by Alistair Whatley

The Theatre Royal Bath, Monday 20 – Saturday 25 May 2013

Birdsong is billed as “a mesmerising story of love, courage and sacrifice” which takes place during and before the first World War.

Sebastian Faulks states in the programme “Why try to make a painting from a sculpture?”, and I’m afraid I would tend to agree with this.

Visually the production was stunning. Victoria Spearing’s set design was beautifully formed giving us the confines of a trench overshadowed by barb wire and a symbolic wooden cross, framing the claustrophobia of the piece accurately. Paired with Alex Wardle’s gorgeous and atmospheric lighting design focusing the audiences attention on small areas of the stage with side and up light and a gloriously lit cyc at the rear of the stage. The constant sound scape of explosions interspersed with birdsong added to the atmosphere and was perfectly executed by sound designer Dominic Bilkey. Also a good use of music to join and interlink scene changes and to heighten moments of tension.

Transitions between scenes were well staged and incredibly slick moving the action between a number of different locations effectively.

The Brechtian letter monologues and prayers quickly became very tedious and did not allow the audience to feel any empathy with the characters. The details contained within these monologues should have caused an emotional response in us as an audience, but we failed to be moved and as a result did not really care what happened to the characters.

Jonathan Smith’s portrayal of Stephen was on the whole very good, but his aggressive style of love for Isabelle (played by Sarah Jayne Dunn) did not allow us to fully believe in and feel compassion for their story.

I’ve no idea why the choice was made to have such a bizarrely choreographed sex scene involving contemporary dance and a red scarf. This was completely out of keeping with the style of the piece and again failed to help the audience connect with the passion of the two lead protagonists.

Act One ended with a stunning back lit tableaux of the soldiers going over the top of the trenches at the Battle of the Somme. This image was breathtaking and would have perhaps been a better end to the show rather than the tedium that ensued in Act Two.

Unfortunately this show failed to deliver on many levels and left no emotional imprint. If you want a production that is visually amazing and cleverly directed then it’s worth seeing from that point of view, but fans of the book may be left feeling a little short changed.

2 &1/2 Stars

Luke John Emmett