REVIEW: Birdsong at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Jonathan Smith and Sarah Jayne Dunn in Birdsong

Jonathan Smith and Sarah Jayne Dunn in Birdsong - Credit: Archant

Birdsong, a stage version by Rachel Wagstaff at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, June 29. Review by ANGELA SINGER.

THEY were up against impossible odds. There were some valiant efforts, glorious moments even, but Birdsong the play is overwhelmed and defeated by the so much more powerful Journey’s End, Oh What a Lovely War and even Blackadder.

In the opening scenes, the play promises a deft distillation of the book but very soon, this becomes too great a task.

In trying to tell the story of the book’s love affair and its picture of the First World War - though slickly staged or possibly sometimes because of it - it gets too close to farce.

Or that might be because, sadly, the demeanour and delivery of Jonathan Smith as our hero, officer Stephen Wraysford is reminiscent at times of a parody in Beyond the Fringe.

There are heroic performances from Arthur Bostrum (reprising his accent in ‘Allo, ‘Allo), Malcolm James, Tim Van Eyken and Polly Hughes, who play both civilians and characters involved in the war but these are not enough to save the play.

It is fighting on too many fronts. It needs to concentrate on the two men: the officer Stephen Wraysford and the tunnel-digger Jack Firebrace. Tim Treloar who plays Firebrace could have carried the thing better as a one-man show, the story of Jack Firebrace.

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The two men save each other’s lives. First the officer, Wraysford exercises compassion and does not court martial the exhausted Firebrace after he has fallen asleep on duty.

Later, in gratitude Firebrace asks to see the dead officer’s body on the field and finding him still alive, carries him to safety.

Finally, the two are trapped in a tunnel. The most wrenching storyline of the book is that of Jack Firebrace, recruited as a tunneller because of his skills digging the London Underground, we see him underground at the front for over two years without a break.

We hear his letters from home. He is refused leave, even when his little son gets diphtheria.

Firebrace has the most poignant lines of the play. He says that the men at the front complained about the food and he did too because he didn’t want to admit that (as working family man in London) the food was better than he had at home.

A brave attempt but a long, dreary evening in the theatre.