REVIEW: Birdsong

A war, and a play, that will not be forgotten

ADC Cambridge cambridge students Cambridge University College Tab Theatre university World War One

It’s not every day that you go to see a production of the AS coursework text that you thought you’d finally escaped from, and find yourself actually welling up in the first half (something that the book never managed to achieve).

Léa de Garnier des Garets and Toby Waterworth share a moment as Isabelle Azaire and Stephen Wraysford

I’ll admit that I was not the biggest fan of Birdsong when I was analysing it for those beloved UCAS points, but the evident hard work of this cast and crew has certainly paid off – tonight’s performance was beautifully acted and the whole experience was thoroughly moving. The play follows the life of Stephen Wraysford (Toby Waterworth), and cleverly intertwines the past with the present with an excellent use of interesting, and on the whole smooth, transitions between the front lines and his amorous years in Amiens.

“My best mate”

Conor Dumbrell and Jamie P Robson put on stand-out performances as Jack Firebrace and Arthur Shaw, complete with accents and kitted out with First World War songs and slang. In fact, the most impressive and poignant part of the play for me was the relationship between these two men. The classic stories of comradeship between soldiers were brought to life with touching sensitivity, and there was real chemistry between the characters. When Firebrace (Conor Dumbrell) cried “he’s my best mate”, it would really have taken a heart of stone not to be touched.

Going “over the top”

What made scenes of such heart-felt acting all the more emotional was the excellent use of music, both recorded (I particularly liked the touch of a record player that crackled into life, and I did not miss the highly symbolic birdsong) and, even more impressively, live. Shimali de Silva’s voice was perfectly suited to the mournful song that she sang over the soldiers as they wrote their last goodbyes before the Somme – a moment that will stick in the mind long after the performances are over. The rawness of the music sung without backing was stunning, and it is impossible not to be swept up in the indiscriminate tragedy of the war as you watch Andrew Carey, as Tipper, the fifteen year old soldier who lied to get to the front line, break down in writing a letter to say goodbye to “mum”.

The set designers and builders must also be applauded: the creation of a trench, complete with wheel-on wooden offices, and the view of battered fence posts and the fatal wire, all cleverly lit by the colour-changing backdrop, enhanced the atmosphere of the play brilliantly.

This was a play with an outstanding design, and equally excellent acting, made particularly poignant by the fact that many of the actors, if we were living a hundred years ago, would not just have been acting in an old costume but fighting in the trenches alongside men like Stephen and Firebrace.