It’s best, I think, that I begin this review by stating that I have not read the novel from which the play is adapted. I will, therefore, not be making comparisons between the novel and the play; something I think to be irrelevant in any case. The play, as it stands alone, is a wonderful example of slick and precise storytelling that draws you into the highly emotional plot.
Perhaps the most remarkable element of the production is the projection that is used throughout. A large screen is used as a backdrop for the show and the crew project onto it images that correlate to the action on stage. In this way, the set can change very quickly and still feel real. I find it difficult to justify the use of projection in theatre as it’s often over-used and thus detracts from the actors and the play as a whole. When I saw the screen I had my reservations but within a few minutes I was thankful it was there; Trevor Nunn manages to integrate it so beautifully with the rest of the show that I find it hard to imagine the show without the projections.
The set itself was simple. The stage was left largely clear, except for when a setting was needed, at which point the necessary table and chair, sofa or rose bush was brought on and once done with was just as swiftly removed with brilliant efficiency. The whole first act has the feel of a whistle-stop tour and as such it moved at a very quick pace, rushing from scene to scene. This isn’t a bad thing at all as it keeps the audience interested and attentive in the exciting storyline. The necessary points are made and you do become invested in the characters to a remarkably deep level, although you don’t realise it until the culmination of the second act.
The performances of the cast are a match for the superb script, with special mention having to go to Lee Ross (Jack Firebrace) and Paul Hawkyard (Arthur Shaw). Their sappers in the second act really draw you in and their stories and friendship really connects with you. Their humour makes you laugh in all the right places and they give a wonderful yin to Ben Barnes’ yang. They are, for me, the standout performers in the show.
It’s not just them, though. The whole cast give strong performances, including Florence Hall as the very young Lisette. She manages to capture the mannerisms and behaviour of a fifteen year-old girl in what is a very mature performance indeed. Nicholas Farrell also demonstrates his class, giving authoritative performances as both René Azaire and Captain Gray. He captures the characters of the two men and shows in the first the stubbornness of a man attached to power and in the second the helplessness of the officers in the First World War. Genevieve O’Reilly plays the conflicted Isabelle Azaire with a grace that ensures you understand the challenges that she faces in being married to her tyrannical husband and how her love for Stephen Wraysford (Ben Barnes) gives her simultaneously both solace from this turmoil and a deepening sense of guilt and fear for herself.
Which brings us to Ben Barnes. Expecting good things of him I can only say that I was somewhat disappointed. Although he had a firm grasp of the style of the show (that it is spoken to the audience in a way similar to that of a man recapping his memoirs) his execution seemed rather one-dimensional. When he wasn’t speaking very quickly he was on the verge of shouting, if not fully into the realm of unnecessary noise levels. Whenever he had to show desperation, fear, anger or pretty much anything else he resorted to raising his voice. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the character weren’t endlessly darting between these emotions. He had some deeply moving stories to tell of the horrors of war, of people being mown down at the Somme and the desperate situations in the trenches but all of them were tainted by his inexplicable need to raise his voice and overdo it almost every time.
Having said that I was disappointed with Ben Barnes’ performance, I was still captivated by his story and the stories of all the people involved, especially in the second act.
There was a marked difference between the two acts. The first act used a lot more projection, some powerful lighting effects and was faster, with more optimism and hope. The second act was dark, not using projection so much as a set that imitated the trenches and tunnels that made the set more claustrophobic and darker. The characters had very little optimism and no hope at all. The differences made the second act even more striking. By the end of the play the developments can’t help but move you deeply. The horrors of the war and the desperation of the people trapped in the centre of it are brought out in a fantastic script and a masterful production.
The thing that summed the power of the show up more so than anything else was the bow at the end. The cast lined up in front of the poppy fields and birdsong, giving a sombre bow almost without a smile before leaving us alone with the birdsong and our thoughts.
At the Comedy Theatre, written by Sebastien Faulks and Rachel Wagstaff, directed by Trevor Nunn, cast includes Ben Barnes, Nicholas Farrell, Genevieve O’Reilly and Iain Mitchell, run: 18th September 2010 – 15th January 2010.
John Ord (23/10/2010)