Sebastian Faulks’s most popular novel Birdsong is an epic, time-jumping 550-page doorstopper. So turning the beloved World War One saga into a manageable piece of theatre was no small task for writer Rachel Wagstaff – yet she’s surely done Sebastian proud with this new production at Bristol Old Vic.
Indeed, Sebastian even creeps in for a few cameos in the production and – try as the costume team might to hide his trademark bushy hair under a peaked cap – there’s no escaping his presence… or his triumphant wave to the audience as the cast line-up for a deserved bow at the end.
Unlike the novel, which is set before, during and after the war, Birdsong the play centres on our hero Stephen (Edmund Wiseman) and his experiences during the war, using carefully constructed flashbacks to weave in what happened in his past to make him the detached, distracted, tortured man he is.
Edmund is stunning as the controlled, tightly wound Stephen, while Emily Bowker is compelling as the alluring and unhappy Isabelle. But among the excellent cast is a surprise element (well, surprising to me) – former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan who is fantastic as Jack Firebrace, the resilient miner. I shouldn’t be surprised – Peter has been acting since the 1970s and would probably rather he wasn’t best remembered to me as my vintage of Blue Peter host!
The claustrophobia of Sebastian’s novel is echoed well in the tight sets, and especially the scenes in the tunnels where the imminent sense of danger and terror is evident in every line. None more so than those uttered by terrified soldier Tipper (Max Bowden), whose ultimate actions are entirely understandable in the circumstances but no less shocking.
Birdsong is a story of courage, horror and heartbreak. And it is all the more shocking simply because it is based so clearly on events that tore apart the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Birdsong is performed at Bristol Old Vic until May 9. Click here for more information and to book tickets.