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Kent: Birdsong, adapted from Sebastian Faulks' novel, tours in the centenary of the First World War

By Angela Cole

Widely considered one of the best war novels of all time, Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong, which has sold more than three million copies since 1993, has also been adapted for the stage, and is on its fourth and final UK tour.

The show comes to Bromley and Tunbridge Wells in a year of commemorations for the centenary of the end of the First World War.

In pre-war France, a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, embarks on a passionate affair with Isabelle Azaire that turns their worlds upside down. As the war breaks out, Stephen must lead his men through the carnage of the Battle of the Somme and the sprawling tunnels that lie deep beneath. Faced with the horrors of the war, Stephen clings to the memory of Isabelle and the idyll of his former life as his world explodes around him.

Birdsong, adapted for the stage
Birdsong, adapted for the stage

Rachel Wagstaff adapted the story for the stage. She said: "I loved the novel when I first read it at 17, on the bus to school. I felt a profound connection with it. It struck me even then how well it could take to the theatre – for example, how vividly the tunneling scenes and the intensity of the relationships could be portrayed. I suppose this was my way of paying tribute to a novel that meant so much to me. I felt hopeful that if I could create something that received Sebastian’s approval, it might also pass the scrutiny of all the other fans of the novel,” adding: "It strikes me it is particularly important now that there is no longer anyone left alive who served during the Great War. We have to remember to honour those who fought, to pass on their stories, their sacrifices.”

The cast is headed by Tom Kay and Madeleine Knight as Stephen Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire, with Alfie Browne-Sykes from Hollyoaks and Sevenoaks-born actor Simon Lloyd.

Here, Sebastian Faulks talks about the adaptation.

There was no single inspiration for writing Birdsong...

But there was a multiplicity of thoughts and ideas. The task was to harmonise them into an artistic whole. When I first started researching the war in the late 1980s it was still possible to meet men who had fought in it. That was an important part of it for me – to feel that it was not part of some pageant called ‘history’ but something very real that had had happened very recently – to the man standing next to me.

When you write something, you hope that it will mean something to other people too...

The production seems to get better every time. This version has a quicker pace without losing any intimacy. The play is a cleverly crafted production that strikes a perfect balance by conveying the seriousness of war with light-hearted moments peppered throughout. We see true camaraderie between the troops, with loveable characters and both tear-jerking and laugh-out-loud moments alike.

Sebastian Faulks' book Birdsong has been adapted for the stage
Sebastian Faulks' book Birdsong has been adapted for the stage

I was initially puzzled...

I wondered why Rachel would want to turn one thing which had proved to be perfectly satisfactory as a novel into something else. I was also sceptical. Birdsong is quite a novelistic novel: it draws upon all the techniques of fiction. But Rachel argued her case very persuasively because she could see where it could be made to work. So I said OK.

When I had a look at the first draft, I saw that Rachel had understood the book and I felt that there was real potential in what she’d done. The difficulty was that I’m a bit all or nothing. Being a novelist, you are the god of the world you have created. You are in complete control, down to the smallest freckle on the nose of one of your characters. I talked to Rachel about the themes and ideas and the history behind the book. I also made occasional one word suggestions but all the rest of it, the middle ground as it were, and especially the dramatic construction, I left to Rachel.

This is the fourth and final tour of Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of my novel...

As it coincides with the centenary of the Armistice in 1918, it comes with an additional air of celebration. The play has had a long life since its first incarnation in the West End in 2010 and audiences have always been warm and appreciative. I very much hope that this finale will be a glorious one.

It is important to honour those who took part and to try and understand their experience..

To see what we can learn about the human animal. I am an ‘ambassador’ for the charity, whose aim is to remember, educate and heal – the latter by giving money from the sale of the figures to charities that help present day service men and women. Sebastian has tried to keep his distance from rehearsals, though he has had a cameo in a few shows. The camaraderie is good and I was impressed by how much work is constantly going on back stage while the actors are out front.

DETAILS

Birdsong is at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley from Tuesday, May 1 to Saturday, May 5. The show is suitable for ages 12 and above. To book tickets visit churchilltheatre.co.uk or call 020 8290 8210.

It will be at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells from Monday, July 2 to Saturday, July 7. To book visit assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk or call 01892 530613.

* The Churchill Theatre is also holding a small display of Henry ‘Harry’ Walter Penberthy and his brother, who lived in the Bromley area. On show will be their Dead Man’s Penny, British War Medals and letters, all in the foyer of Churchill Theatre until Saturday, May 5.

Alfie Browne-Sykes (Tipper) and Simon Lloyd (Shaw) in Birdsong
Alfie Browne-Sykes (Tipper) and Simon Lloyd (Shaw) in Birdsong

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