DISCLAIMER: This review is of a preview performance, the papers are being invited to Birdsong
early next week. I've also never read the original novel, which I get the feeling I ought to be issuing a disclaimer for as well. Nor have I felt compelled to read any of Sebastian Faulks' books, especially after his author's note in Devil May Care
which boils down to "you're probably horrified that I, the greatest writer ever to have lived, wasted my time on a James Bond book but fear not, I basically just coughed and this thing came out so I'll be back to blowing your mind with my awesomeness soon." The reason I feel it's particularly worth mentioning is that at times in the theatre tonight I felt as if I'd accidentally wandered into a church I wasn't a member of. The programme notes reverently tell the tale of how Faulks crafted the greatest story ever told, following his every move like a holy pilgrimage, and I was surrounded by people who'd brought their copies of the book with them, were discussing how many times they've read it, and in the interval were listing every little scene from the book that hadn't made it into Rachel Wagstaff's stage adaptation. I knew the book was a bestseller, but didn't realise it had this cult following. With the film adaptation having spent over a decade in development hell, it's easy to see this as a cynical attempt to cash in on its fanbase. I wish I could say watching the play dispelled this notion but I'm afraid I can't. The feeling was most typified for me by John Napier's set, of a giant book on which the action takes place, with spectacularly turning pages. It's beautifully done but the story's not about a book, there's no recurring theme of books, so all I could think when looking at it was that this was a symbol of "look, it's the book you loved reading, come to life!"
In the opening act it's 1910 and Stephen Wraysford is visiting a family in Amiens, and falling in love with the young wife. Here especially, Wagstaff relies too much on narration from the lead rather than dramatising the action; Wraysford is played by Ben Barnes, who's pretty and competent but utterly lacking in charisma, so this "tell, don't show" approach gets old fast. At least Barnes' return to the West End adds an extra bit of jeopardy - will the leading man make it to the end of the performance, or will he get a better offer and bugger off halfway through? After the interval it's 1916 and Wraysford is fighting in the trenches, and things are at least livened up by Lee Ross' excellent Jack Firebrace, a sapper digging tunnels under the enemy trenches. A big favourite Round These Parts, the implausibly pretty Gregg Lowe is also in the cast, playing a couple of small roles, but rather memorable ones which he does well with.
Currently the show's running at three hours, with one interval and a "pause;" it may get tightened up by Opening Night to the 2hrs 50mins promised in the programme, but Trevor Nunn's the director so 3hrs is pretty much what you'd expect anyway. Considering the programme notes' swooning over the novel's uncompromising descriptions of sex, it's striking how bloodless both the romance and the violence is here. If Barnes and Genevieve O'Reilly had any chemistry this might help, but at this point there's no spark between them, so their epic love story is hard to believe in. By contrast Zoë Waites' performance as Jeanne has a lovely understated strength. Sometimes as I write these reviews I find them coming out a lot more negative than I'd expected, and this is one of them, but ultimately I couldn't help feeling that there was a pervading sense of "that'll do" behind this production.Birdsong
by Sebastian Faulks, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff, is booking until the 15th of January at the Comedy Theatre.