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Review: Birdsong at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells

By John Nurden

Birdsong certainly goes with a bang at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells.

After craning to hear some of the actors' lines, I almost jumped out of my seat at the sound of the first bomb blast.

The thundering bass notes rumbled out of the speakers making the whole auditorium shudder.

Birdsong at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells
Birdsong at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells

Then Alex Wardle's lighting lit up the stage in an explosion of colour, bringing the shocking realism of dodging fire in the First World One trenches to life.

But chisel-faced Tom Kay's portrayal of Army officer Stephen Wraysford (played by Eddie Redmayne in the BBC's mini-series) was more of a whimper.

This is the fourth and final tour of the thought-provoking play, based on Sebastian Faulks's award-winning novel and coincides this week with the 102nd anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

Madeleine Knight and Tom Kay as Isabelle and Stephen in Birdsong at Tunbridge Wells
Madeleine Knight and Tom Kay as Isabelle and Stephen in Birdsong at Tunbridge Wells

The play opened last night and charts Wraysford's war. As he watches his men mown down by enemy fire he recalls his love affair with married French woman Isabelle (Madeleine Knight) in a series of flashbacks.

The action switches imperceptibly between trench hell to pre-war paradise as he falls in love with Isabelle and steals her away from her elderly domineering husband.

Victoria Spearing's inspired set should take a bow as, with a few strategically placed props, it see-saws from the trenches and dangerously tiny tunnels under No Man's Land to sunny days of love. Alas, Mr Kay's acting doesn't have quite as much range in this role.

It is down to Tim Treloar with his powerful portrayal of tunneller Jack Firebrace to save the show.

Your heart breaks for him as the former London Underground tunneller prays to God when he learns his young son is seriously ill back home.

You will also get a lump in your throat when the lads go "over the top" in a scene straight out of Blackadder's final gut-wrenching programme.

Alfie Browne-Sykes plays Tipper in Birdsong
Alfie Browne-Sykes plays Tipper in Birdsong

The show is a first for Alfie Browne-Sykes, who played Jason Roscoe in Hollyoaks. He plays the double role of 15-year-old Sapper Tipper, who lied about his age to fight for his country, and Isabelle's annoying step brother Gregoire.

Simon Lloyd, a former Wildernesse School, Sevenoaks, pupil plays Sheffield colliery man Arthur Shaw who braves the tunnels of northern France.

Sevenoaks-born actor Simon Lloyd as Arthur Shaw in Birdsong at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells
Sevenoaks-born actor Simon Lloyd as Arthur Shaw in Birdsong at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells

There is beautiful singing from the entire cast, especially James Findlay who also plays violin and melodeon.

* Birdsong is at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells to Saturday. Tickets start at £15 from 01892 530613.

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