Compelling and provoking theatre

Cast of Birdsong at Eastbourne beach SUS-140907-100452001
Cast of Birdsong at Eastbourne beach SUS-140907-100452001
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Review of Birdsong at the Devonshire Park Theatre by Kevin Anderson.

From Wilfred Owen to War Horse, writers and artists have grappled with the dreadful events of the Great War. Birdsong – back at the Devonshire Park this week – belongs with the best of those works: a magnificent piece of theatre.

Birdsong will always be the “play of the book”, and quite a challenge with its complex story and lengthy timespan. Taking the story from page to stage is a remarkable achievement and, simply, a triumph. The original West End production was long and a bit cumbersome, but Rachel Wagstaff’s bold, reshaped adaptation now works better.

The action can seem a little baffling, especially in the first act, until the audience grasps the use of flashback, but the final effect weaves the strands of the story skilfully together.

Alastair Whatley’s direction relies strongly on physical and visual impact. The whole production is set against the stark, silhouetted backdrop of the Western Front. Superb sound and lighting draw us remorselessly into the awful reality of the trenches.

The acting itself is a precarious mix of styles. Stephen Wraysford himself is a flawed hero and fractured soul, and George Banks conveys the agony of both his broken love-life and his battlefield torment in intense, almost melodramatic fashion.

Alongside Stephen, his comrades in the trenches are graphically played. There is brilliant physicality in their hunched, twisting scrabble for survival in the tunnels and trenches. And Samuel Martin’s singing rises hauntingly above the horror.

Among several fine portrayals, Peter Duncan stands out, sharply capturing the ironic, cheerfully defiant spirit of the common soldier. A splendid, rounded piece of acting from a man with Blue Peter and Chief Scout already on his CV.

The soldiers are counterbalanced by the play’s women. Carolin Stoltz’s Isabelle is dignified and understated, and she gets nicely balanced support from sister Elizabeth Croft and loyal family servant Lucy Grattan. Selma Brook convinces as the flirty stepdaughter and also doubles smartly as a cameo prostitute.

Compelling, provoking theatre with a resonance and power which cannot fail to move you. This production shakes you to the core.