Birdsong

Tue 2nd – Sat 6th May 2017

reviews

Cameron Wallis

at 10:19 on 3rd May 2017

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Transitioning between the murky trenches of the First World War and gilded Edwardian summers of rural France, Birdsong follows the volatile psychological path of army officer Stephen Wraysford. An intense portrayal of the complications caused when lives are interrupted by war, Sebastian Faulks’ novel, adapted by Rachel Wagstaff, suits the stage well.

Director Anastasia Bruce-Jones has evidently enjoyed designing this production, and her enthusiasm has visible rewards. To the left of the stage, a flock of hand-drawn doves watches over and seems to guide the play as it ducks and dives between memory and reality, from the confused narrative of Toby Waterworth’s young, love-worn Stephen, to the earthy, honest performance of Conor Dumbrell as Jack and his tunnelling companions. The transitions between these scenes are neatly choreographed, reminding us of the blurs in Stephen’s mind without unduly confusing or frustrating the audience. The trench dug-out, too, which hovers ominously over the memory scenes, never letting the characters or audience escape the oppression of such futile warfare, evokes those black and white images we all know so well of silhouetted figures on the barbed-wire horizon. The ambiguity of what lies on the other side casts a dark, deeply affecting shadow over the entire production. The lighting of Andrei Svankmajer deserves recognition, especially in the tunnel scenes, which were effectively portrayed considering the logistical difficulties of presenting a restricted space on a large open stage.

Jack Firebrace is played with enveloping skill by Dumbrell, who steals our eye each time he walks, crawls or stumbles on stage. Dumbrell not only traverses his character’s emotional development with gripping, authentic skill, but he also displays an impressive control of stillness and silence - something much feared in student theatre, and shows how Bruce-Jones trusts her actors. In one particular letter scene, his chemistry with Jamie P Robson as Arthur Shaw is exceptionally moving. Once he has captured our attention, Dumbrell wraps us round his little finger until we are wholly invested in his character, to the extent that he makes Waterworth’s portrayal of Stephen an immensely difficult task. Waterworth rises to this challenge, nicely capturing the youth and confused maturity of Stephen’s character, but the rapid rehearsal period this production has been pushed through does shine through his performance. He is not alone in this, and although the production as a whole is impressive with this time-pressure in mind, many of the actors seem tired for a week one show, evidenced most by inconsistent accents and what felt like laziness on the part of a few, who rather distractingly maintained their lipstick or nail-polish in the trenches. Other notable performances came from the toe-curlingly agile portrayal of Berard by Ben Martineau, and the believably childish Rachel Kitts.

The main frustration of the show was in the volume of the actors. A lack of projection meant the play never really gathered enough energy to gain much momentum. Dumbrell’s innate energy carried the play through this, but even he lacked the extra edge that filling a space with a voice can give. That said, his singing voice, along with that of Shimali De Silva, did reinvigorate what was, at times, a flat-sounding dialogue which felt a waste of something so well-transposed for stage. Overall, the cast form a cohesive ensemble, invested in the production and alive to its emotional impact, which pays testament to the endeavours of Bruce-Jones and her assistants.

If you need something to throw exam term into perspective, this production is sure to have you leaving the auditorium feeling quietly humbled, enabling that little cry you didn’t know you needed. Don’t expect to be overwhelmed, but do expect to become intensely involved in the progress of Dumbrell’s captivating Jack.

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