"The play centres around Stephen’s life as a soldier after he is saved from death by the loyal and determined Jack"Ellie Cole and Theo Heymann

“I know. I was there. I saw the great void in your soul, and you saw mine”

Through the dual character focus upon young father and trench-digger, Jack, and his officer, soldier Stephen, this production of Sebastian Faulk’s renowned novel Birdsong really does enable its audience to see "the great void in [their] soul," the horrors of war, and the lives behind individuals who died during the First World War, in particular, on the banks of the Somme.

"Past and present are entangled throughout the play"

The play centres around Stephen’s life as a soldier after he is saved from death by the loyal and determined Jack. Stephen’s experiences at war merge with memories of his past as overlapping locations of the Somme and French borders trigger flashbacks entangled with his life in the trenches. A tale of love, sisters, abusive husbands, and ethical dilemmas surrounding one infatuated young girl occupies Stephen's past in Paris, while the woes of war, friendships, duties, form his present experience in the trenches. Past and present are entangled throughout the play, offering two stories that coincide at the end of the war and at the end of the performance.

This merging of plot-lines was executed very well in this performance. Excellent direction by Anastasia Bruce-Jones enabled a clear distinction between both physical and temporal spaces. This was paralleled by fantastic acting and multi-roling as many of the soldiers in the trenches doubled up as members of a French family. The French accents were very believable and well-utilised, helping to indicate changes of scene and also enabling further characterisation.

The multi-roling of Rachel Kits in particular was very well played and cleverly crafted, acting both Lisette and a sex-worker. This further enabled foreshadowing and paralleling of insinuated sexual attraction of both characters. Moreover the depth of many of the central characters, especially Jack (Conor Dumbrell) was phenomenal, moving me to tears at one point. The accurate and un-stereotypical acting throughout this play is definitely to be commended.

Birdsong "moved the audience from laughter to tears, leaving a final reverence in their minds for the soldiers who fought for our futures." Ellie Cole and Theo Heymann

The drama was evident throughout the performance as audience were moved from laughter at Jack’s jokes, comments, and pranks made behind the trenches, to fury, confusion, frustration, and finally, to tears. As well as the acting that enabled this, smell was used well in this production too. Smell was often evocative, invoking a more sensual response from the audience, as smells of gun-powder were occasionally present and smoking onstage created the same fumes as one might imagine to hover behind the trenches. 

Sound effects were also integral in enveloping the audience into the setting of war and recreated the tension behind each anticipated blast of the cannons or shooting of the guns. The orchestra were exceptional in providing backing music to enhance atmosphere, crafting tension, romance and sorrow. Occasional bursts of song as the soldiers sang not only comic war songs but also incredibly poignant songs of loss, confusion and fear also added to the production. In this way, the play stayed true to its name, offering a fundamentally human song to accompany the birdsong that weaves its way throughout.

The concept of 'Birdsong' was not, however, fulfilled very well and this could have been made more explicit in the play. However, the use of paper birds to hover around the edges of the stage and the fun origami bird instructions offered on the flyers to the performance were original ways of integrating the theme.

The set, as a whole, was very-well structured, serving to create the backdrop of the trenches as well as additional scenes in wheeled-in trench offices, beds and domestic settings. As the  war ceased, the ending was beautifully managed, with the set coming alive through a simple, yet very effective use of poppies. A nice use of the under-part of the stage also stuck out, enabling a bypass underground and more realistic envisaging of the trenches.

Overall, a brilliant performance and adaptation of Faulks’ poignant novel. Some brilliant acting, clever direction and excellent use of special effects moved the audience from laughter to tears, leaving a final reverence in their minds for the soldiers who fought for our futures. Even upon leaving the theatre, one is left wondering the very same as the innocent, clumsy and loveable soldier, Tipper: “I do not understand what this war was for…” and the memory of the war will remain with you for the rest of the evening