Birdsong – King’s Theatre

Written by Sebastian Faulks, Adapted by Rachel Wagstaff

Directed by Alistair Whatley & Charlotte Peters

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Never again”; the imperative words uttered regarding the First World War. Yet, in the darkest moments of human history, we find an enticing light to the subject. Whether it be through respect, education or simply guilt, the lessons we garner from these times are urgent. Adapted from the 1993 novel of the same name, Birdsong seeks to reignite our respect and recover history.

Beneath the moaning earth, littered with the fallen, an entirely different war was waged. Tunnels, some 100ft below No Man’s Land, carved out by British, French and Germans attempting to lay explosives below the other. Dug by ‘sewer rats’, men who dug out the London undergrounds, men like Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar) aching for news of his son in London. Still soldiers in their own right, risking their lives in multiple ways just as those above the surface did. Laced within this narrative are flashbacks to the rumbles of war, as Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) arrives in France. He finds a gleam of light in the shade, Isabelle (Madeleine Knight) a married French woman.

Differing from the novel, focusing more on the stories of Wraysford and Firebrace is a respectful turn as opposed to their descendants. It eases the narrative, driving our attention into the correct areas. The fuse takes time to smoulder, and you’ll certainly find it easier to connect with one character over the other. Yet in the grand scheme their fates are entwined to the audience’s receptiveness. Deeply moved by the outcome, even with characters we hadn’t entirely warmed to.

A touching thematic exploration of fatherhood is conducted through the larger role of Firebrace. Treloar embodies the spirit of a father, the centre of his garrison keeping the men jovial and the young brave. Balancing this are Knight and Kay whose passions betray otherwise icy exteriors. The fleeting moments of fondness one seeks in desperate times are deep, showing that there is more to the tale of war than death. Even through this, love still exists, however complicated. The chemistry, more so than between the romantic leads, but Treloar and Kay as comrades is touching, leading to gut dropping moments.

Transitions are complicated in the medium of the theatre stage, unable to rely on the usual tricks screen productions can call upon. Birdsong however manages a tremendous feat, we never need to question if we are in the ‘present’ or past. More than this, simple tricks of the light and swift flat moves manifest all forms of location. From the grim trenches, deep underground to the claustrophobic tunnels. Alex Wardle’s tweaked lighting design is simple, nothing over the top but manages to shift the tone from one of song to the dreaded ‘over the top’ moments of the Somme tastefully.

With war, comes pain. One cannot sugar-coat the atrocities of the past, nor should we ever re-write them. Even in fictional works, the subject matter needs to remain as truthful as possible to real events. Throughout the seclusion of the grimness, small sparks of humanity remain. Tiny touches which, just to those brave men, lift the audience out of the doldrums. Singing, music and those symbolic birdsongs help alleviate the bleakness, whilst also reinforcing the severity of the situation.

Recovering history is of paramount importance. As memories fade, they alter, they shift and warp. Productions such as Birdsong, as too the original novel, seek to maintain a narrative. Even if fictionalised. It would be a stretch to describe Birdsong as uplifting, though it is enjoyable. Its subject matter of trauma isn’t made to entertain, more so to reignite emotions. In truth, it is a fundamentally engaging piece of adaptation, with merit behind its messages. For lest we forget (again), that what is war but hell?

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:

Soft Power – Album Review

Lyrics by David Henry Hwang

Music & Additional Lyrics by Jeanine Tesori

Rating: 3 out of 5.

What is this America?”, a phrase on the lips of the globe. Two years ago, lyricist & writer David Henry Hwang teamed with composer Jeanine Tesori to create Soft Power, a reversal of the perceived status-quo and keeping an eye on democracy in America, from a Chinese perspective and (slight) first-hand account of Hwang’s experiences upon arriving into the States. This mastered cast recording of the production contains all fourteen tracks (overture & instrumentals included), and though capturing moments of Soft Power’s heavier pangs of emotion and satire – it struggles to reflect the quality of the show.

An infusion of American ballads, to a composition considerably of Chinese influence, there’s a sublime marriage in intervals for the album, as Tesori’s overarching score shifts naturally between short interludes, expositional numbers and even a take on a traditional ‘protest’ song in track twelve with The New Silk Road. Vocally, Conrad Ricamora carries the album, with the ensemble bolstering small-scale numbers with witty, semantical lyrics, and holding them higher than the traditional listener might pick-up. Soft Power’s album, like the production, has flaring sparks of undeniable wit, attempting to stand-out against a sea of bland which sadly makes up a bulk of the album.

For the album to strike out on its own, without the necessary visual clues, it doesn’t manage to grasp attention or melody in its own right until track seven and the introduction of Election Night. Here, the narrative takes a turn, and the pieces which have been mulling around come together with clear direction. One of the album’s stand-out numbers, it draws much of its potential from the ensemble, turning Election Night into a slow, steady build with a stark twist, much like the election night of 2016. This and the preceding number I’m With Her, sung by our dear near-president Hillary Clinton are stand-outs, but suspicions lurk that the latter suffers without visual accompaniment.

Clinton is a major role within the show, portrayed in a starkly different manner, or rather a severely satirical incarnation. Alyse Alan Louis has a tremendous voice, which delivers character as well as vocal precision, capturing the humour within I’m With Her, which traditionally is staged in a McDonald’s. Her harmony with Ricamora can be best heard in Happy Enough, a sombre, reflective number highlighting the ludicrous expectations placed on women presidential candidates. The latter half of Soft Power’s recording leans into the issues of race, and the deconstruction of America’s idealistic views, offering richer substance than the first half.

Communicating merit, the album captures Hwang’s themes of racism, cultural appropriation, and expectations, but as a collective, fails to convey a flowing narrative, breaking off or trailing away following a filler song or instrumental segment. As a collective, earlier numbers serve to build a relationship with the audience, particularly Dutiful and Fuxing Park which present a wealth of nostalgia and emotion but provide little in the way of staying power as solitary numbers.

Soft Power enables America to dance to the tune China whistles, a reversal of a state-wide ideology and grinding against the traditional theatrical numbers found within musical royalties Rodger & Hammerstein and The King & I. There’s a ripple of comradery, beneath the unpleasant truth of our reliance on democracy, abjectly dismissing its incredible short-falls, and perhaps this is a key issue with the lyrics – Soft Power’s narrative already benefits from multiple viewings, or an in-depth watch and so the album suffers, unable to forge an authentic representation of the production.

Soft Power Original Cast Album is available from Ghostlight Records now

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub: