Birdsong – Online

Written by Sebastian Faulks

Adapted by  Rachel Wagstaff

Directed by Alistair Whatley & Charlotte Peters

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In the bleakest moments of atrocity, even war, stories of the human ability for kindness, compassion and endurance offer lifelines. 104 years, to the day, since the Battle of the Somme, one of modern Europe’s most horrific events, Rachel Wagstaff’s adaption of Sebastian Faulks 1993 novel Birdsong pays tribute to the tremendous valour and sacrifice of so many while streamlining their theatrical production for a digital medium – hoping to not only maintain the embers of theatre but promote The British Royal Legion and grasp the world’s focus, on the precipice of such inward destruction, that the lesson we seemingly have yet to learn about conflict.

For those lucky enough to catch the 2016, or subsequent 2018 touring production, fond memories will flood back of a dauntingly poignant show, and this returning online version contains enough deviation and difference to feel entirely innovative and individual. Set shortly before, during and after the Battle of the Somme, Faulks’ story revolves around the Tommys, miners who would dig the trenches and attempt to uncover enemy tunnels, focusing particularly on Jack Firebrace, and of his commanding officer Stephen.

Amalgamating the video format into a live performance, Alistair Whatley and Charlotte Peters’ direction refrains from cheap gimmickry, and while other productions find difficulty in modifying their narrative to a digital format, Birdsong excels. The intensity of the close-ups, only achieved with direct video, convey a rich connection with the performers, particularly Tim Treloar’s Firebrace. Fixated, it’s difficult to look away as the black knot in your stomach grows as Treloar’s words enrapture you, gripping the audience. In the silence of your own home, away from the distractions of a theatre, Treloar’s performance breathes humanity into Wagstaff’s words.

And this silence is paramount to the enjoyment of Birdsong – where possible, try to avoid watching this on a tablet or small screen, the editing process and visual quality has been crafted for no different an experience than a feature film. Dynamically staged, with multiple screens and the occasional fourth-wall break, Birdsong adapts to the medium, rather than accepts limitations. Where there is no physical set, it makes do, focusing on background designs, audio tricks and score. A composition played and designed by musical director James Findlay manages to almost evoke an intense response as hearing it in the heart of a theatre.

Additionally, combining elements of theatre and film, Faulks narrates the interceding scenes, offering a transition in place of a theatrical one which would enable time displacement or location changes. Swerving between the trenches, the earth-laden tunnels beneath the German troops or in the bright, fresh lands of provincial France, Tom Kay, Madeleine Knight and Liam McCormack all play their part in engaging with the audience, strengthening the believability of the digital production. Transformation is imperative, and each cast member evolves as the production moves forward. Kay’s status dynamic with Treloar shifts, as too does his emotional chemistry, resulting in powerful moments of silence, as he comes face-to-face with the enemy.

Are there insignificant issues of audio or effect warping? Certainly. Does this cause issue with enjoyment or appreciation? Not in the slightest. The tenacity, ingenuity and momentum propelling this unique performance of Birdsong forward are precisely what theatre thrives on, what empowers its creators and drives the audience to follow the siren calls of our treasured artform. Wagstaff’s adaption of Birdsong seeks to reignite our respect, recover a sense of waning history and demonstrate a significant reminder of the imperative words; “Never Again”.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:

Available here to rent from 7pm 1 July until 3 July 

Uncorked – Netflix

Written & Directed by Prentice Penny

USA/2020/104 minutes

On the subject of wine, The United States not only seems intent on procuring a namesake for their product, but American cinema too has a steadily dripping reserve of films where vineyards sit as a central theme. For every Bottle Shock or Sideways, which take a predominately middle-class approach, there has been little in the blend of wine culture into black communities, so it’s time for a shake-up in the form of Prentice Penny’s feature debut Uncorked.

In a competent challenge of preconceptions surrounding a black man’s (Elijah) relationship with his father, primarily as their aspirations clash, Penny’s script subverts a traditionally bleak narrative where the context of race is present but underlying. Uncorked focuses on Elijah’s determination in becoming a sommelier, no small feat given the intricate examinations, costs and his father Louis’ disapproval. Disapproval which stems, not from ignorance or misunderstanding, but from a man who places his entire being into a staple of the community.

It isn’t difficult to understand why Elijah wouldn’t wish to disappoint Courtney Vance, who exudes charm throughout Uncorked as Elijah’s father Louis. Helping to balance the extreme expectations placed on his son, his position within the story reflects the importance of food culture, especially at the heart of communities. Vance carries weight to what could easily have been an antagonistic role, conveying Louis’ reasons for maintaining the restaurant and sacrificing his dreams, all with a degree of humour, calmness and excellent repartee with Niecy Nash as wife Sylvia. 

Now, on the whole, Uncorked is remarkably straight-forward, with little in the way of complex narrative techniques or cheap dramatic tricks. Carrying the film is Mamoudou Athie as Elijah, a young man who grinds against the groove of the men in his family and has little desire to run the Smokestack restaurant his father, and fathers before him have operated. Elijah has ambitions, but Athie maintains an earthiness in the role. He forges chemistry with each actor, and a relatability with the audience, regardless of their background or goals.

In a standout performance, driving a substantial portion of the films warmth, Niecy Nash captures the soul of Uncorked as Sylvia; a vivacious force who is criminally underused, particularly in the film’s latter third. A survivor of cancer, her remission forces Louis and Elijah’s reconciliation, and completes her story-arc as she strives to teach both of the men in her life one final, heartfelt lesson; reminding them that in the pursuit of ambition, never to forget to check on those we leave behind. 

Uncorked is as much a foodie film as it is a wine flick, with Elliot Davis’ cinematography agitating the tastebuds. As shots slow, Davis highlights the simplicity of life’s pleasures, with a steadfast focus on the smoking meats or colour contrasts of deep-bodied Merlots, against the pure, almost crystal clarity of a young Riesling. This is Uncorked’s strength, focusing on life, rather than politics. Much which can be read into Uncorked’s meta is from the audience’s mindset, with only minor pushes on commentary surrounding the elitism of wine, or the predominately white hiring of sommeliers. 

Penny’s Uncorked is precisely the change of pace many will welcome, refusing to inject false pretence or overt emotion. Uncorked, for lack of a less pun-fuelled description, requires savouring. It thrives on time, slowly allowing the story to breathe and bolster its cast who, able to inhabit their personas, give dimension to most roles, with only the occasional side-character feeling contrived. A palette cleanser, there are notes of tenderness, but for those expecting melodrama or lacerating commentary, a sour taste is left in the last mouthful.

Review originally published for The Wee Review:

Uncorked is availabe for streaming on Netflix

Heroine – Traverse Theatre

Writer: Mary Jane Wells

Director: Susan Worsfold

At the heart of this production, a prime example of raw, honest theatre, is the life story of Danna Davis. Adapted in a brutal, purposeful way, Heroine hasn’t been crafted by writer and performer Mary Jane Wells as a sob story, nor a hate piece – it’s a profound amalgam of anger, outrage, fragility and survival.

Five stools, five spotlights – one story. Danna Davis, a woman serving in the United States military who must work, live and survive among those who have sexually assaulted her; those who threaten her life, and the lives of those she loves every day. More than this, it’s a story for anyone in the room, those at home and both Wells and Davis, ensuring silence is no longer an associate of perpetrators.

Written in a variety of fashions, Well’s production combines metaphorical lyricism with gritty, literal expression to demonstrate both the innate power of the human condition, as well as the fragility we all share. Rather than an extensive discussion of the sexual assault Davis experienced, a contained segment is all which is required, a lacerating depiction of the event, hushing what feels like the world for a few minutes as Well’s dedication and respect for the role speaks volumes. Cast in George Tarbuck’s lighting design, it’s a harrowing piece of beautiful theatre design, even as it uncovers the degeneracy and retaliation within our armed forces.

An assault on the senses, Matt Padden’s effective sound design is disorientating at times, though this is inherently the idea behind such design. Loud, invasive and immediate, the stark change of everyday noises into PTSD situations triggers the transformation which pushes Heroine beyond observational. It’s sensory theatre, quite possibly one of the few shows which would work equally as a radio or audio drama.

Remarkably personal, Well’s writing captures (we suspect) as close an account of Davis’ experience as possible. In a haunting way, it’s a beautifully written production – distressingly lyrical, wrapping such vile, grim reality in a vexing garb which, despite its subject matter, is funny, touching, engaging and in some morbid sense – comforting. Well’s performance conveys the process of grief, just as equally as the process of aggression and forgiveness, and in tandem with Susan Worsfold’s wonderfully simplistic, yet effective direction builds rapport with the audience quickly.

Perhaps a result of the heightened emotional nexus, Heroine finds itself an overflow of intense moments. Never detracting from the message, structurally it causes halts and wobbles in a production which otherwise is a pinnacle of honesty. With how rooted Well’s writing is in the life of another, and the experiences of so many, there’s little wonder that emotion bubbles over, occasionally taking Wells out of her role as Davis, throwing her off.

The fact we sit in 2020, with powerful productions such as Well’s still a necessity to offer a release, opening dialogue for those experiencing sexual assault and retaliation while serving in the armed forces, is beyond explanation, but it’s a story we need to hear. A story we must preserve, ensuring that for as long as sexual assaults within any workplace, especially those who defend our nations, continues, that there remain a stark reminder and avenue of exploration for all.

Review originally published for Reviewshub:

Photo Credit: Greg Macvean