For months after I read Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong, I was haunted by feelings of claustrophobia. His retelling of the horrors experienced by the tunnellers during the First World War stayed with me to the extent that I have never felt ready to re-read the book.
Thankfully, there are other ways to enjoy (if that is the right word) Faulks’ 1993 masterpiece. The recent BBC adaptation, for example, and, this week, a new theatrical version at the Oldham Coliseum.
And so to Oldham and the logistical nightmares that entails for a town seemingly forever in the midst of roadworks and a Metrolink extension. But these trepidations were nothing in comparison to concern at what Rachel Wagstaff, the adaptor, may have done with Faulks’ work. If nothing else, how on earth do you stage a book with a complex narrative and long passages of dialogue set underground?
Well, she managed it, if not altogether successfully. In an attempt to stay true to the novel’s episodic structure and series of flashbacks, the actors were required to move between different periods of time at frenetic pace. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it didn’t. A fair few scenes felt hurried and there was little opportunity to digest what had gone before. If anything, the play needed to be longer to accommodate the vicissitudes of Faulks’ vision.
There were also moments of unintended hilarity. A love scene between the two leads, clearly intended to be a balletic display of sensuousness and passion, was ludicrous. And the casting of Arthur Bostrom, the verbally-challenged British spy in the long-running TV series of ‘Allo ‘Allo, was an interesting choice. Bostrom was perfectly fine as the pompous friend of Monsieur Azaire, the female protagonist’s bully of a husband, but asking an audience brought up on The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies to accept him was an ask too far. During one particularly moving moment, I found myself wishing he would say “good moaning, you are clearly the guilty potty.” I nearly lost it when he addressed the husband as ‘René’.
But I digress. Despite the production’s flaws, it was an extremely professional show. The set alternatively evoked the trenches of the Great War and the home of a French business owner, while the sound designer deserves a medal. As the lead, Jonathan Smith (not long graduated from LAMDA) perfectly encapsulated the uptight Stephen Wraysford, in love with his boss’s wife and yearning to unleash his passion. His love interest, meanwhile, was played by Sarah Jayne Dunn. I gathered from the programme that she is the longest standing female character in Channel 4’s Hollyoaks, but her fame was lost on me. She was, er, OK.
Special mention, however, for the ensemble cast, in particular Tim Treloar as Jack Firebrace, a so-called ‘sewer rat’ whose humanity is the most moving element of the play.
Ahead of the centenary of the start of the First World War, this is a play that demands to be seen. But read the book first.
Review by Helen Nugent
What: Birdsong by The Original Theatre Company
Where: Oldham Coliseum, Oldham city centre
When: until July 6, 2013