First World War drama Birdsong flies into Cambridge on its last ever run
Harrowing and insightful – and even more poignant in this, the centenary year of the end of the First World War – this moving drama is currently on its fourth and final UK tour
Rachel Wagstaff’s acclaimed adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ bestselling novel is a story of love and courage among the horrors of war, and stars Tim Treloar as Jack Firebrace and Tom Kay as Stephen Wraysford.
As well as the love story, the play details the lives of underground tunnellers during the conflict and the challenges that come with what was often an arduous and thankless – and not to mention highly dangerous – task.
The set is brilliantly designed and perfectly creates the devastation of the trenches, while constant explosions in the distance add to the deeply sombre tone. In stark contrast, birdsong can also be heard throughout – hence the title.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Tim Treloar was nominated for a Best Actor Award in the 2013 Manchester Theatre Awards for the 2013 tour, as he perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the ordinary British ‘Tommy’ and steals almost every scene he’s in.
The other actors all do a great job of playing the soldiers of various ranks, from domineering generals to lowly privates, and special mention must also go to Riley Carter, whose excellent portrayal of Welshman Evans also provides some light relief.
Alfie Browne-Sykes as the underage Tipper has some truly heartbreaking scenes, leaving one to reflect – and perhaps shed a tear – on the sheer tragedy of 14 and 15-year-olds going off to war.
Extremely gripping was the bit where the men were reading out loud what they were writing in their letters home, with most still trying to remain upbeat, despite the unimaginable hardships.
The ‘going over the top’ scenes also provided transfixing, heart-in-the-mouth moments.
As far as the love story was concerned, I enjoyed the early scenes showing the awakening of romantic feelings and the awkward courtship that followed – beautifully played out by Tom Kay and Madeleine Knight – but it didn’t quite go where I expected it to go, and I’m not quite sure what I mean by that...
It was also a little difficult at times to follow which were the flashback scenes and which were in the present, and I think the scenes above ground vividly showed warfare at its worst more than the underground scenes.
Strangely, I enjoyed Act 1 more than Act 2, finding it more emotional with an easier-to-follow storyline.
It’s probably good that the story didn’t pan out like I had expected it to – surprise is a good thing – but the second half just seemed to me to be lacking something.
That said, Birdsong is definitely worth seeing, if only for the energy and effort of the cast and the superb job the production team did in creating the set and the sound effects.
I came away with a feeling of despair at the utter pointlessness of the First World War, so the play did succeed in doing its job.
Birdsong runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, May 19 at 7.45pm. There are also matinees on Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm.
Tickets: £19-£34 (all ticket prices include a £3 per-ticket booking fee).
Box office: 01223 503333 or cambridgeartstheatre.com