Review: Birdsong brings the horrors of the Western Front to life

By Alan Wooding

It’s a play that has been eagerly awaited by the regular Milton Keynes Theatre audiences... and Birdsong certainly didn’t disappoint when it opened last night (Monday) for a week long run.

Following on from the successes of Michael Morpurgo’s acclaimed First World War drama ‘Warhorse’ in the West End and the Steven Speilberg film, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong novel has been brilliantly adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff.

Birdsong made its London debut in 2010 while just last year there was a two-part made-for-television drama. It starred Eddie Redmayne (‘Marius’ in the Les Miserables film) in the leading role of army officer Stephen Wraysford although in the touring production the part is played by a remarkably talented newcomer, Jonathan Smith.

His role is of a troubled lieutenant who manages to blot out the horrors of the Great War by reliving a passionate love affair in his head with pretty French woman, Isabelle Azaire (Sarah Jayne Dun).

Almost a century has passed since the outbreak of the First World War but Birdsong brings to the present the horrors of the time, the turmoil and sweat of men cowering in the trenches and tunnels, the constant bombardment of the enemy guns and the sheer hell that they had to endure.

Ms Wagstaff’s stage adaptation is certainly brought to life by the 12 onstage members of the Original Theatre Company while acclaimed director Sir Trevor Nunn’s intervention has made it all the more believable.

Set in France before, during and after the 1914-1918 War, Wraysford had embarked on an risky affair with an abused factory owner’s wife in the town of Amiens in the years leading up the conflict.

Last year I travelled to the Western Front and battlefields region of Northern France and Belgium where I learned first hand of the heroic role played by the hundreds of miners who were called up to tunnel deep into the hillsides beneath the enemy lines in a bid to blow them up before a shot could be fired.

Jack Firebrace (played by Tim Treloar) is one of tunnellers – nicknamed ‘sewer rats’ by the troops – whose job it was to create a warren of claustrophobic 3ft x 4ft passages deep beneath the Western Front where hundreds of tonnes of explosives still lie buried to this very day.

The clever Victoria Spearing set design helps create the hell that was the blood spattered tunnels as the play heads towards the carnage that was the Battle of the Somme where officer Lieutenant Wraysford’s experiences are interwoven with his memories of happier times spent with his lover in Amiens.

With most of the cast playing several parts, it is an extremely polished and moving piece of theatre with former Hollyoaks star Sarah Jayne Dun coming up with an impeccable French accent in her role as Isabelle Azaire, the love interest playing opposite Smith, their passionate but dangerous affair being pivotal to the whole story.

However there are several unintended comical moments with the arrival on stage of Arthur Bostrom. Best known for his portrayal of a French policeman in the brilliant television series ‘Allo Allo’, he gets to play three separate roles in Birdsong – Private Adams, Monsieur Berard and the sabre waving Colonel Barclay.

But when there was a reference to ‘Rene’ – the Christian name of Isabelle Azaire’s husband (Malcolm James) – Bostrom’s French accent brought a ripple of laughter from the entire audience and you almost expected Edith, Yvette, Gruber, Captain Berterelli and the rest of the Allo Allo cast to make a guest appearance!

With the action constantly flashing back and forth between the trenches and the Azaire’s house in Amiens, we meet 15-year-old Private Michael Tipper (Charlie G Hawkins – he played Darren Miller in EastEnders) and Arthur Shaw (Liam McCormick) along with accordion playing Evans (Tim Van Eyken – the show’s musical arranger) and violinist Brennan (Joshua Higgott – who also pre-recorded a piano backing track).

The pair often played live while both Higgott and Van Eyken had wonderful unaccompanied singing voices as throughout the play there were several songs (and hymns) from the period.

Much of the action is centred around tunnel digger Jack Firebrace (Treloar), a feisty and cocky Cockney who kept asking if he could have leave as his eight-year-old son, having contracted diphtheria, lay dying in a London hospital.

Firebrace also thought he would be facing a court marshall after being caught asleep on guard duty but an otherwise distracted Lieutenant Wraysford waved him away and ignored the charge, thus saving Jack from what would have been certain dead by firing squad.

But Firebrace returned the ‘favour’ after he finds Wraysford among a pile of dead bodies following the opening battle. Bending down to pray for the lieutenant’s sole, Firebrace realises that he isn’t dead and rescues him. He gets him to a hospital where he recovers but instead of being told to go back to England, Wraysford demands that he be permitted to return to the front line and to rejoin his men.

One by one the soldiers lose their lives and while Firebrace survives the above ground carnage, the war is in its final days when, together with Wraysford, he tunnels under the German lines only to become trapped when a huge explosion collapses their only escape route.

With his legs shattered and unable to help himself, Firebrace dies in Wraysford’s arms just before the Germans break into the tunnel. Then we hear that the war is finally over as the two opposing soldiers embrace.

Wraysford then returns to Amiens hoping to find Isabelle after being apart for two years, but he learns to his horror that she is dead, having fled from France to live in Germany with a kind and considerate German Infantry captain.

But Wraysford again meets up with Isabelle’s sister Lisette (Polly Hughes) – who has fallen in love with him – and he learns that Isabelle has had a daughter… his daughter!

There is some really fine acting right across the whole cast while the 2 hour 20 minute play’s most chilling scene comes at the end of the Act One.

With ladders up, bayonets fixed and the whistles about to blow along the front line, Private Tipper shoots himself in the head rather than face a barrage of German machine-gun fire in no-man’s land. Then as Wraysford orders his men ‘over the top’ against a hail of German bullets, it’s very reminiscent of the final Blackadder episode. It certainly raised my goose bumps and, I suspect, those of the rest of the audience.

You are dragged wide-eyed through the horrors of the battlefield and confronted with the shocking loss of life and personal heartbreak, yet somehow there is the joy of knowing that many of the soldiers did survive in the inhuman conditions and they were able to return to their loved ones back home.

Birdsong is beautifully put together and it certainly wrenches at the heart strings amid the realistic flashes and huge explosions... but after all the carnage, the birds continued to sing!

Birdsong runs until this Saturday (July 27) and you can book by calling the box office on 08448 717652 or go online at