Stephen Faulks, adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff
The Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions Ltd
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
Reading just a little of Faulks’s novel I was under the impression that it would be impossible to stage, and especially difficult to tour; in fact the author had the same misgivings.
Rachel Wagstaff has proved both of us wrong with this impressively evocative adaptation, forcefully confronting us with the realities of the suffering brought by war—the First World War in this case—and focusing on the courage and endurance of the men (most of them former miners) who spent their days deep underground painstakingly digging tunnels.
The aim was to blow up the enemy lines from below allowing the ground troops an advantage among the confusion, and the work was claustrophobic, stifling, and exceptionally dangerous, all of which is superbly communicated in Alastair Whatley’s dynamic production.
The novel begins before the war in Amiens where a young Stephen Wraysford (Jonathan Smith) has arrived from England to possibly bring a little English expertise to textile factory owner Rene Azaire (well portrayed by Malcolm James) who is more interested in how to bring profits, mostly by cutting down on his employees wages, and to add to his sins he is also a wife-beater. Stephen falls in love with Rene’s wife Isabelle (Sarah Jayne Dunn) and it is this love which sustains him throughout the horrors of the forthcoming conflict.
The play begins on (or rather under) the French battlefields, the peripheral story being told in flashbacks as memories are evoked in Stephen’s mind. Victoria Spearing’s set design could not be more perfect in its depiction of the rat-infested, dark, dank and wretched conditions that the sappers had to endure, crumbling Gothic arches at one side suggesting the historic splendour which is now being desecrated. With very little disruption it slips easily to the various venues in Stephen’s memory, mostly the Azaire family home, with the cast re-arranging the props so slickly it is almost unnoticeable.
Lighting (Alex Wardle) and sound (Dominic Bilkey) play a large part in the story, producing effects so realistic that they seem to encompass the whole theatre with cannon fire, gun shots and explosions bursting on the scene, shaking the tunnels and lighting up the sky above where barbed wire fences surround a large symbolic cross.
There are different styles of music throughout, played, sung or recorded, sometimes jolly, sometimes sad, and often very beautiful particularly in the love-making balletic style duet between Stephen and Isabelle. Parts of this are a little more than suggestive, causing a slight snigger among some teenage boys.
Young Charlie G Hawkins has his ‘happy moment’ as Sapper Tipper with the song “Hold your Hand Out, Naughty Boy”, until finally he can stand the fear no longer. Recent graduate Joshua Higgot demonstrates an exceptional singing voice, but the voice of Arthur Bostrom as the pompous Berard is one of the much needed comic moments, and I almost expected him to say “Good Moaning”, his catch-phrase in the TV series 'Allo, 'Allo. There is humour too among the men, some of it on the ‘black’ side.
The Original Theatre Company has created a show to be proud of, with the twelve-strong cast giving their all, but there’s no doubt that the most outstanding performance belongs to Tim Treloar as Jack Firebrace. He expresses so graphically his anguish at the death of his son, and also his continuing optimism against all odds, until finally circumstances defeat him.
The ending is a poignant meeting of two men, friends at last and only enemies while obeying orders from those who were not in the firing line. Could anything be more expressive of the futility of war.
Touring to Malvern, Southend, Plymouth, Ipswich, Glasgow, Dery, Bracknell, Crawley, Llandudno, Truro, Northampton, Dublin, Canterbury, Bromley, Nottingham, Cambridge, Oldham, Norwich, Windsor, Milton Keynes, Brighton
Reviewer: Sheila Connor