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Article by Vicky Hales-Dutton | 11th July 2018

INDEX Exclusive - Birdsong

Birdsong marks centenary at the Assembly Hall.

Rachel Wagstaff’s critically-acclaimed stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ 1993 First World War novel Birdsong returned to Tunbridge Wells’ Assembly Hall Theatre from 2nd-7th July. The play is halfway through its fourth and final national tour, coinciding with the centenary of the ending of the First World War.

A story of love and hope, passion and courage, Birdsong depicts a doomed love affair between idealistic Stephen Wraysford and the beautiful, unhappy Isabelle Azaire. It also highlights the grim reality of life in the trenches for young Lieutenant Wraysford and the horror of the tunnels endured daily by the likes of Sapper Jack Firebrace.

The process of turning Birdsong the book into a play began in the early 2000s when Rachel Wagstaff, then aged 17, experienced a “profound connection” with the novel. “It struck me even then how well it could take to the theatre – for example, how vividly the tunnelling scenes and the intensity of the relationships could be portrayed,” she says. She approached Sebastian Faulks and the play was first performed at London’s Comedy Theatre in 2010, although it has been revised several times since.

“Each year, the show becomes stronger, this year’s tour (re-mounted by Charlotte Peters) being the most powerful version yet,” adds Rachel.

Sebastian Faulks agrees: “This version has a quicker pace without losing any intimacy.”

The cast has changed too. Tom Kay, whose diverse credits include Shakespeare, Jane Austen and daytime TV favourite Doctors, plays Stephen, while Madeleine Knight (from Florence Foster Jenkins and the soon-to-be-aired fourth series of Poldark) is sad Isabelle. The heroic sapper Jack Firebrace is played enthusiastically by stage and screen veteran Tim Treloar, and audiences have also been intrigued by the casting of transgender soap star Riley Carter as Welsh miner-turned-sapper Evans.

He is a far cry from Riley’s EastEnders trans character Kyle, although both show courage in the face of difficulty. “Evans lies a lot and can be crude but he’s an endearing, cheeky chappie,” says Riley. He worked hard to make his Welsh accent convincing and he’s also enjoyed learning about the war. “It’s hard not to be affected by the emotional rollercoaster of the play, but it’s a piece of history and you must do it justice.”

Putting Riley and the cast through their military paces was the task of Tony Green. His front-line military experience – 15 years as a reservist, with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – together with a Masters degree in World War One Studies enabled him to provide both historical and field expertise for Birdsong.

“It’s important to get the details right,” he says. “So we teach drill and weapons handing from scratch which helps the majority of cast members with no knowledge. Some have had drill experience as cadets and currently we even have an ex-soldier, but I won’t reveal who that is!”

The experiences of Jack Firebrace and other brave tunnellers were based on the 25,000 ‘sappers’ of the Royal Engineers. During the war these (mostly) ex-miners dug tunnels and planted explosives deep beneath enemy lines in hot and cramped conditions. It was extremely dangerous work – they risked death daily via suffocation, being blown up, buried alive or drowning in tunnel water – and many on both sides perished far below ground.

Images: Jack Ladenburg

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