I must preface this review with an admission. I’ve been involved with CCADS since 1994, performing in shows with many of the people in this production. If I’m honest this probably leads me to be too harsh, rather than to overly sing the praises of those who deserve it…
Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is widely regarded as a modern classic, first published in 1993 and already on the curriculum for schoolchildren. The themes of love and loss are ones we can all relate to and have led to the book being adapted for radio, television and the stage.
If there was a company likely to take on such a well-known story it would beCCADS. Never afraid to tackle subject matter that’s extremely familiar to its audience, John-Paul McCrohon once again shows a deft directorial touch here.
As Stephen Wraysford, Pete Westmoreland copes well with the jumps from his past – balmy summer days in 1910, seducing the sweet and trusting Isabelle (played with subtle charm by Caroline Westmoreland)while doing business with her fearsome husband Azaire (a wonderful turn from Kevin Redfern) – and the dark times in the lead up to the battle of the Somme. His story intertwines with that of sapper Jack Firebrace, a simple soul who just wants to get home to see his son. McCrohon gives Jack a softness that belies his harsh surroundings.
The set, a simple but hugely effective mix of sandbags and battered wood, with a tunnel built from rostra, lends itself to both settings and Ian Pratt’s lighting design lends the flashback sequences the warm glow of a summer evening, while the Somme is all harsh shadows and fractured light.
This is an ensemble piece and there isn’t a single performance here that detracts from the piece as a whole. In the flashback sequences Sally Goddard’s Lisette comes of age in the presence of the strange Englishman thrust into her world, the young boy Gregoire seems oblivious to the goings on around him though, Laurence Coqueral playing him with wide-eyed wonder. Zoe Fisher sweeps into and out of the story as the mysterious Jeanne whose story is so interesting she almost deserves a play of her own. Roger Taylor makes for a wonderfully boastful Berard, fiercely proud of his little town and of France as a whole.
The trench scenes are, as with all war stories, a mix of laughter and despair as the troops desperately try to stay positive while surrounded by death and destruction. Jonathan Fost adds warmth as Jack’s best friend Arthur, while Matt Sackman’s boisterous Evans adds a comic touch. Peter Colley brings dignity (and a fine moustache) to Captain Gray and Ben McCready (who also has a wonderful scene later as a German soldier) revels in the starched Colonel Barclay. There’s a touching moment too as Sean Ridley’s underage soldier cracks under the strain.
I could carry on listing the cast here all day as each of them has a moment or two where their characters have a chance to truly come alive!
The structure of the play itself seems to almost be representative of life in the trenches, the overlong first act and lightning fast second reflect the endless days waiting in the trenches before climbing over in to the dizzying battle…
This then is a piece of theatre that you’d be foolish to miss, a wonderful story told by a troupe of superbly talented performers. Go see it now!