BWW Reviews: BIRDSONG, Birmingham Rep, March 18 2014
A month into their UK tour, Birdsong, produced by the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions, is playing at the Birmingham Rep this week. This show is one of many on the road this year that marks the centenary of World War I and is based on the world famous novel by Sebastian Faulks.
This production, adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff and directed by Alastair Whatley, has a loose storyline but focuses on the forbidden romance between young Englishman Stephen and Isabelle Azaire, and the courage of the British soldiers fighting for their country.
The script and performances had the potential to be incredibly moving but unfortunately it came across too often as overly sentimental and melodramatic. This was mainly displayed by George Banks as Stephen. With the direction given, there is no doubt that he attacked the role with the ultimate conviction so he must be credited for his commitment to the performance. However, with the material given, it did sometimes appear rather sickly.
The set design by Victoria Spearing is excellent. There are many different levels and it is very clear on location - this is heavily aided by Alex Wardle's lighting. Ed Holland's costume design is also very good although there is sometimes a small lack of detail in aspects such as the soldiers' putties being put on correctly. Tim Van Eyken's musical direction is excellent and the company deliver stunning vocals, in particular Samuel Martin as Evans who also played the violin live on stage. Lucie Pankhurst's movement direction - along with Whatley's assistance I'm sure - is also very interesting, particularly with the passage of time transitions. Dominic Bilkey's sound design is good, although on occasion the dialogue could be a little garbled but I believe this was more to do with diction.
The cast are more than competent in their roles, some perhaps more than others. Peter Duncan as Jack is wonderful and taps into his emotion without overplaying it. Carolin Stoltz as Isabelle also gives a very sincere performance but she doesn't quite fit the exact casting regarding age in my opinion. Sometimes I felt that some of the character roles should not have been doubled up as much, particularly with Malcolm James playing Azaire and Grey and Jonny Clarke playing Tipper and Gregoire. The characters are too strong and prominent to be double-cast so a couple more actors would have been preferable to make this distinction. In general, the company worked incredibly well as an ensemble. However, the chemistry between Stephen and Isabelle wasn't vastly apparent continuously so their relationship wasn't entirely believable, especially in the development of their 'affair'.
I enjoyed the stage production more than the BBC TV drama starring Eddie Redmayne but I would have questioned some character and text choices. However, I commend the company for their commitment to the piece.
Birdsong is at Birmingham Rep until Saturday 22 March 2014.