This stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ classic novel Birdsong was a masterpiece. Heartfelt, powerful, occasionally funny and deeply moving, tonight’s performance at the Oxford Playhouse conveyed human love and fragility with not a word or gesture wasted.
Taking place in the trenches of World War One and France a few years earlier, Birdsong is a love story. It is a story of forbidden love between a man and a woman, and it is a story of fraternal love between brothers at arms. As our characters experience what they must, they are all left changed forever.
There is so much excellent artistry to share about the play that I’m not sure where to start. The set and lighting were intelligently thought out and very well executed. Dug-out offices composed of crates effortlessly transformed into aristocratic tables with the draping of a cloth. The stage transformed to a sapper’s tunnel with two wood arches and a low light. Surrounding the stage, mangled wood and barbed wire provided a constant oppressive reminder of the context.
Performances by all characters on the stage were excellent. The cast all had distinct and believable accents, and each one managed to run the gauntlet of emotions, each expressed differently, adding to the depth of their humanity. Though all the cast were top notch, special mention might go to Tim Treloar, playing Jack Firebrace. Treloar easily conveyed an instant warmth, responded perfectly to jokes and carried on a not-too-broad accent tastefully. Subtle behavioural ticks, like the way he regularly scratched in the same place, helped to make him seem like a real person, meaning it was all the more crushing as we watched his world fall apart.
On top of the acting, our cast also sang. Directed by Tim Van Eyken, the heartfelt folk ballads of yearning and loss broke up the scenes without breaking the atmosphere or emotion. Understated humming and hymns were perfectly placed to compliment the drama, fitting effortlessly into the pacing. It just worked.
Clever directing by Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters also allowed for seamless scene changes, which in turn meant the narrative could jump smoothly backwards and forward in time. The choice to mix up the chronology in the stage adaptation was frankly genius, allowing the juxtaposition of the oppression of war to be placed alongside the peace-time love affair a year previously.
Everything in tonight’s performance was excellent, right down to the thoughtfully composed programme. We left feeling quiet, deeply moved and deeply impressed. A piece to be proud of.