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THEATRE REVIEW: FTN reviews Birdsong at the Grand Opera House, Belfast

June 24th, 2014 by Conor ONeill Comments

The Grand Opera House, Belfast
Mon 23 Jun – Sat 28 Jun 2014
For tickets & more info go to the GOH website

When you scan a play’s program and read the running time is two hours 40 minutes you think four things. A) WTF? B) Have I enough pens? C) Will my bladder hold? And D) Is it any good? 160 minutes, or, if you’re a pedant like me, that’s 9,600 seconds. Most people could drive to Dublin and back in that time; and that’s getting stuck behind a caravan, a few tractors, repairing a puncture and stopping off for lunch.

Mercifully, one pen sufficed, bladder held until the interval and, most importantly, it was good. Good with a but. But we’ll come back to the but a bit later.

The set design of this play is both attractive and workable for both cast and crew. WWI, a fortress just under enemy lines, no-man’s land is both above and below, depending on what rank or position the characters find themselves in. The lighting for the most part is Gotham City midnight blue, leaving the audience to rely on the characters’ voices to differentiate a plot that’s thicker than four-day-old con carne. Camaraderie, valour, class division, fear, claustrophobia, suicide, romance and the spectre of being away when you’re needed most brings all the subplots together like knitting needles and wool bringing a jumper to solution, but that’s not apparent until the second act.

And this is maybe where this piece of theatre fails. The opening half hour is a wiz of set changes, introduction of too many characters, and who or what exactly is the main theme/player of this play. I must admit I’ve never read Sebastian Faulks’s novel of the same name, but must profess to confess that Rachel Wagstaff’s handling of the work is to be admired for both achievement and ambition. Wagstaff’s reliance and trust in director Alastair Whatley proves to be fantastically correct, not a seat switch, wine sip or costume change out of place; every actor, be they major or minor, couldn’t have been directed with more precision.

Which happily brings me onto the actors; at one point I thought I was running out of fingers to count them on, but reading through the program there’s only about seven or eight, which to a viewer without Hubble could be 78: there’s singers and dancers, the daft and romancers, Cockneys and Welsh, an obedient wife, a stepping out step-daughter, a singer, an abuser and a 15-year-old confused one. And they all play their parts with deft hands, legs and mouths with much appreciated clout. There are four main characters but with word count pressing and limited time I can’t name all of their accolades. George Banks plays the not entirely wholesome but entirely dutiful Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford, providing both the official leadership of our haphazard gang and deranged lover of an other man’s wife, namely, Isabelle played by Carolin Stoltz of Emmerdale Farm fame. But for laughs and poignancy, the tragic Morcambe and Wise style pairing of Peter Duncan, former Blue Peter presenter, playing Cockney Jack Firebrace, a character with too much sorrow to mention, and his adoring and adorable buddy Arthur Shaw (Simon Lloyd, Horrible Histories) really savage the heart of the audience. This team of actors are Brazil on a good day: flair, commitment, decisiveness, passion and all the other superlatives one could throw at them. I don’t know how long this play has run, but I’ll put my next week’s wages they’ll grace every board worthy of their talent.

A special mention has to be given to the musical score. Not just the four-to-the-floor dance routines and sing-alongs, but the haunting violins and breath-taking vocal solos as three men read out their final words to the ones they love before going over the wire.

A woman in the audience cried as the final soliloquy was delivered. I was quite near to joining her. Such a pity only 500 of the 1,000 seats were sat upon, half the audience on their feet, three curtain calls. Job done.

4 out of 5 Nerds


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Conor O'Neill is at times a playwright and a qualified journalist. He has worked for the Belfast Telegraph, Portadown Times and South Belfast Advertiser. He also contributes to various online e-zines, specialising in theatre, gig reviews and other cultural events. If you were to ask him what he does, he will say 'I'm functioning'... that's a lie. Best suited to pressure and deadlines, O'Neill thrives on the moment, the passion and the thrill of now, he's only happy when he's watching or reviewing a play.

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