REVIEW ROUNDUP: Ben Barnes Opens in Birdsong in the West End
The play tells the story of one man's journey through an all-consuming love affair and the horror of the First World War. The company stars Ben Barnes as Stephen Wraysford and also features Genevieve O'Reilly (Isabelle), Nicholas Farrell (Rene Azaire), Iain Mitchell (Berard), Lee Ross (Jack Firebrace), and Zoe Waites (Jeanne), along with Owain Arthur, Billy Carter, Florence Hall, Paul Hawkyard, Gregg Lowe, Joe Coen, Jack Hawkins, James Staddon, and Annabel Topham.
The production has been designed by John Napier and has costume design by Emma Williams, lighting design by David Howe, projection design by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, sound design by Fergus O'Hare, and original music by Steven Edis.
The reviews are all unanimous in their praise of Barnes' performance. In addition, the critics generally concur that Nunn's production only becomes effective after its first act.
Among the reviews are:
Birdsong, Comedy Theatre, review
"Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong is such a haunting and harrowing book, and lives so vividly in the mind's eye of the reader, that seeing it on stage is initially at least a deeply disappointing experience."
"With the move to the trenches the play at last kicks into dramatic life, though it has taken more than an hour to do so. The horror of the trenches, and perhaps the even more terrifying claustrophobia of the tunnels beneath them."
"Even in the trenches scenes, Nunn's direction is sometimes turgid, with unconvincing sing-songs round the piano. The play's most moving moments are the simplest, with Lee Ross as the sapper Jack Firebrace writing letters to his wife and reading her replies. Thanks to Ross's beautifully simple and direct performance, the scene when he receives terrible news from home is by far the most moving in the play."
Birdsong in tune with the horrors of Faulks' novel
"The main draw is Ben Barnes, known chiefly for his film roles as Dorian Gray and as King Caspian in the Chronicles Of Narnia. He plays Stephen Wraysford, who when we first see him is a smart, upright 20-year-old. Sent to France to learn about manufacturing, he falls for his host's wife Isabelle. After initial reluctance she hurls herself into an affair with him, the perils and pleasures of which are much less effectively conveyed than in the novel."
"Wagstaff's version retains many of the novel's intriguing elements: its concern with class, its sense of war as an exercise in blinkered bureaucracy, its depiction of an early-20th century crisis of masculinity. It's poetic, too, and beautiful in places, thanks to John Napier's clever designs, which make generous use of projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington."
"Barnes has an elegant way with his expository speeches, but Trevor Nunn's production is often static, and, for all the gravity of its subject matter, it doesn't engage us fully."
Birdsong, Comedy, London
"...when the play moves to the western front, from 1916 to 1918, it exerts an emotional grip. Wagstaff has jettisoned the later stages of the novel in which Stephen's grand-daughter seeks the truth about the war. What this version focuses on is Stephen's transformation from an ardent lover into a figure of despairing isolation in the face of endless human sacrifice."
"The play is also staged with simple ingenuity. John Napier's designs, based on projected drawings and photographs, effectively usher us from the watery charm of peacetime Amiens to the scarred emptiness of the wartime landscape. And the performances throughout are good."
"This is not the whole of Faulks' book; nor can it be. But, in the space of three hours, it gives us an effective summation of the story and captures both the pain and the pity of a war that almost defies comprehension."
First Night: Birdsong, Comedy Theatre, London
"...a brilliant theatrical filleting by the young playwright Rachel Wagstaff, ingeniously realised by director Trevor Nunn and his greatest design associate, John Napier."
"...Ben Barnes as Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford - tall, dark, troubled and jumpy, [is] a perfect fit for the role - revisits his own story like a narrating ghost."
"There is no weak link in Nunn's cast of 15, with Iain Mitchell playing the boorish neighbour in Amiens and a blimpish colonel at the front, and Paul Hawkyard and Owain Arthur notable in the ranks. The three-hour play poignantly intermingles ghosts of past and present, and fully expresses the black poetry of this carnage as a defacement of humanity, and the landscape it inhabits."
Birdsong, Comedy Theatre, London
"...the show finally achieves a gathering, remorseless power as Stephen finds himself buried alive in an underground tunnel below the front. But while Fergus O'Hare provides a haunting, dynamic soundtrack that pitches us into the heat of battle, the production sometimes suffers from trying to establish authenticity and atmosphere too carefully - David Howe's lighting for the tunnel scene is so dark that you can barely make it out.
"It's nevertheless exciting to see a 15-actor new play being produced in the commercial West End, and Nunn orchestrates a strong cast with his usual flair for ensemble performance. Ben Barnes leads from the front, in every sense, as Wraysford, while Lee Ross, Genevieve O'Reilly, Iain Mitchell, Paul Hawkyard and Nicholas Farrell are amongst those offering outstanding support."
"It's a novel to wallow in, but Trevor Nunn and the writer of this stage version, Rachel Wagstaff, have brilliantly distilled a three-hour play without losing the density of the subject matter or the poetry of the story."
"Barnes, like Wraysford himself, leads from the front, ably supported by Nicholas Farrell as both the cuckolded husband and a Scottish general, luminous Zoe Waites as Isabelle's sister, bearing a message of hope, and, especially, the outstanding Lee Ross as the charismatic tunneler Jack Firebrace, devoted to his ill son back home, and Stephen's unlikely companion in the hour of darkest need.