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: https://www.thereviewshub.com/birdsong-online/

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

A War of Two Halves – Tynecastle Stadium

Written by Paul Beeson & Tim Barrow

Directed by Bruce Strachan

Musical Direction by Matthew Brown

Runs at Tynecaslte Stadium from August 11th – 26th, Various Times

Marking the centenary of the 1918 Armistice, drawing influence from the 1914 Hearts Team (The Bravest Team), A War of Two Halves is promenade theatre from writers Paul Beeson & Tim Barrow. Taking us through the journey these players would make, from locker-room to trenches of the Somme. If at any point you took at glance at this production, do not wait a moment longer to book a ticket. You will never regret it.

In the confines of the Hearts home locker room, you’ll find yourself transporting back through time, breathing in the sweat, glory and hardships of the team. The directness in Beeson & Barrow production is not a glorification of war. It is a tribute, a reminder of these valiant men who would surrender their chance at a League title, their careers and regrettably their lives.

You’ll find an itchy finger searching for a phone to take pictures at first, and, how couldn’t you? The production allows a venture through the unseen belly of Tynecastle. As the gravity weighs down, this will stop. The performances are so strikingly mortal that all technology, chatter and outside influences cease. It’s a remarkable testament to power on display here.

There are three types of people who aren’t meant to show their emotions or distresses: Men, Footballers and Soldiers. These lads were all three. After all this time, all this suffering, Alfie Briggs can re-live the events, and hopefully, find some sense of closure.

Alternating performances with Paul Beeson, Bryan Lowe performs the role of Briggs this evening. Encouraging us to follow there are no worries entrusting everything with our narrator. Lowe elevates this production into realms of immense story-telling talent. The entire space around him shifts back a century at a word.

The manner of introducing a full cast of McCrae’s battalion can lead to unbalance in depiction. Every performer though treats his or her role with respect. No doubt a combination of stellar acting with Strachan’s direction, this is a conclusive manner in which to introduce a cast, enthralling us, wrapping ourselves into each of them.

Michael Wallace, Charlie Wake, Mark Rannoch, Scott Kyle, Paul Beeson, Tim Barrow and Fraser Bryson do not portray characters. They are those men. The comradery, aggression, fear and levity are wholly human. In particular, the dedication of Kyle and Rannoch, to such complex roles is commendable.

At multiple occasions, a visceral lump will take up residence in your throat. Don’t be afraid to let it out, you can sense that the audience is waiting for someone to cry, so they can follow suit. We are in good company, as Hannah Howie guide us to our destination. Underscoring the event chiefly through violin, Matthew Brown’s musical direction is as harrowing as it is elegant.

Strachan concentrates on drawing humanity. They are heroes of Scottish football, heroes of war, but they’re mortal. Tynecastle isn’t being utilised for the image alone, Strachan knows precisely why each segment takes place where it does. From the howls of match-time frustrations on the new main stand to the heart-breaking moment as the team, donning their maroon and khaki, frog march down the long corridors. As they fade away, the weight of this production sinks harder than you can imagine.

During the Fringe, people won’t look past the city centre. What they’re missing is a wealth of earthy, red-blooded theatre without a trace of superficial motive. The thought that has gone into this piece of theatre, beyond performance and venue, deserves every ounce of respect we can muster. A War of Two Halves is a stunning piece of writing, with a sentimental heart of reverence.

Tickets available from: www.tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/war-of-two-halves

Photography by Tony McGeever