Birdsong, Comedy Theatre, London

Michael Coveney
Thursday 30 September 2010 00:00
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You can see why Sebastian Faulks's great 600-page First World War novel Birdsong would make a good film: horrendous scenes of trench warfare, literally book-ended by a lost, idyllic world of rivers and fields and a new dawn rooted in the modern-day honour paid by the hero's investigative granddaughter.

And that film has nearly been made five times, apparently, since the novel was published in 1993. Instead, we now have a brilliant theatrical filleting by the young playwright Rachel Wagstaff, ingeniously realised by director Trevor Nunn and his greatest design associate, John Napier.

That pairing, which brought us Cats, Starlight Express and Les Miserables, presents something both stark and beautiful, in which Ben Barnes as Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford – tall, dark, troubled and jumpy, a perfect fit for the role – revisits his own story like a narrating ghost.

Stephen has arrived in Amiens in 1910 as an outrider for his home textile firm, and falls in love with Isabelle Azaire (Genevieve O'Reilly), the wife of his factory-owning host, who is beaten every night, bullied and bruised into meekness. The couple elope, with the curse of the husband predicting that they will go to hell.

That first act is summoned with evocative projections of the landscape around the River Ancre and the Somme that will soon be defiled. The staging can embrace a sunny day's punting down the river and a warren of tunnels. Sometimes resembling a cross between Journey's End and Oh! What a Lovely War, the squaddies are kept amused by Jack Firebrace's music-hall turn (Lee Ross is outstanding) while Stephen is kept to his task by the Scottish general (Nicholas Farrell) and the growing encouragement of Isabelle's sister, Jeanne (Zoe Waites).

To 15 January (0844 871 2118; www.birdsongtheplay.co.uk).

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