REVIEW: Birdsong, Durham Gala Theatre, until Saturday, March 15

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0ne hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War, this slice of theatre brings home the horror and futility of war.

Adapting Sebastian Faulks’ classic novel Birdsong for the stage is no mean feat; it’s an epic piece of literature that straddles the decades and great human suffering on the Western Front.

But Rachel Wagstaff’s stage version pulls it off with aplomb.

Clever use of lighting, an imposing set and the booming sound of bombs and whizzing bullets immerses you in the trenches, a limbo for soldiers as they wait to live or die.

At the heart of the piece is tortured soul Stephen Wraysford, played with immense intensity by George Banks.

Played in an utterly believable fashion, he does an excellent job of drawing you into the peaks and troughs of Wraysford’s life, from his overwhelming love for Isabelle Azaire (Carolin Stoltz) to the stench and lice of the trenches which pervade his being.

Theirs is not an easy love, it’s scarred by the era in which they live, but you can’t help but root for the pair as their stolen glances morph into passionate embraces.

Act one is well structured as it flits between the murky trenches to pre-war Amiens with clever physical acting from Banks as he lurches from his death bed to rewind time and think of himself in the arms of Isabelle.

But what makes Birdsong one of the nation’s most popular novels is that it’s so much more than a love story, it poses questions about hope and humanity.

Never more so than in tunneler Jack Firebrace, played to perfection by Peter Duncan, whose zest for life is slowly chipped away by the dark depths of the trenches.

The climax came with an emotional address to the audience by Wraysford that left me blinking back the tears - a beautiful, yet heart-rending, tribute to the millions who have lost their lives to war.