Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Ovr the top

In the trenches: Troops wait for the whistle to go over the top in a dawn attack.

Pictures: Christopher Commander


Sutton Arts Theatre


Every blue moon or so along comes a production that defies any description or thought involving the words amateur theatre.

Birdsong is amateur only in that no one is paid but in every other respect this is a production that would not look out of place on any professional stage – starting with a superb set from Mark Nattrass.

Sebastian Faulks’ 1993 novel is not the easiest to adapt for the stage, spread as it is over 70 years from 1910 France to 1970’s London and Rachel Wagstaff’s play takes us no further than the trenches of WWI. The dramatization means the book’s narration, Elizabeth Benson’s search to find out about her grandfather, Stephen Wraysford, and his war, is left to readers of the novel

Instead, the audience has the story unfold before them from Wraysford’s visit to Amiens to stay with René Azaire, his wife and their children in 1910, his adulterous affair with wife Isabelle and then the demons that haunt him in the trenches.

Robbie Newton, a Sutton regular, has shown an admirable range over the years from comedy to drama, and is an excellent Wraysford, from a sympathetic romantic lead in pre-war France to a troubled officer on the Somme – a lieutenant who feels for his men, refusing leave, refusing to desert them, yet still appearing cold and aloof.


Jayne Lunn as Isabelle and Robbie Newton as Stephen Wraysford

embark on their ill-fated love affair

Jayne Lunn provides a convincing Isabelle, trapped in an unhappy, and it appears, brutal marriage, she finds an escape, for a while, in their visitor, while Andrew Tomlinson is a suitably pompous René, a harsh mill owner with with a hint of cruelty which flares up at his wife and children.

Patsy Broom, incidentally, is a convincing daughter Lisette, a teenager finding her feelings swirling between girl and woman.

We open though in the trenches with sapper Jack Firebrace, whose job is to dig tunnels under the German lines to pack a chamber with explosives and, so the theory went, destroy the trenches above.

It is a stellar performance from Dexter Whitehead, convincing and moving, and matched by his best mate Arthur, another fine performance from Richard Price. Jack, we suspect is only semi-literate, so Arthur is his window opening on to the letters from his wife Margaret.


Dexter Whitehead as Jack Firebrace - we hurt with him for the lot of his son

And what letters; first we hear of son John, aged eight, taken to hospital with diphtheria. Routine vaccination means the bacterial infection is rarely seen today, but in 1916 up to one in five children catching the disease would die – and John joined their number, news in a subsequent letter we shared with Jack, feeling his intense pain.

With them is Evans, Welsh as bara brith, played by Dominic McDonagh, who spends his time chasing girls, yet in a poignant moment after a visit to a village whore, asks desperately what . . . it . . . is like. He’s never done . . . it . . . so wants to know how it feels just so, if . . . .the unspoken if, with its finality, a constant companion in the trenches.

He is to find his brother, their first meeting in the trenches, shot to pieces hanging on barbed wire.

Then there is Tipper, played by Giles Whorton, who joined up in bravado, lying about his age, and is now a petrified 15-year-old with death waiting for him over the top.

Into this madhouse  a meeting of Jack and Stephen is inevitable, two chapters of the same story. First Stephen lets Jack off a charge of sleeping on sentry duty – a charge that carries the death penalty.

Then the favour is returned when Jack saves the life of the badly wounded Wraysford, and the pair share what proved to be the final moments of the war, trapped in a tunnel, Jack dying, Stephen wondering what was the point of it all.

Jack who dug tunnels for the London tube had only joined up because the pay was better – it's just the price was higher.


Robbie Newton as Stephen Wraysford lost in thought in a war he doesn't understand

Around them we have a host of characters, soldiers, nurses (Millie Farrelly), a chaplain (Dan Payne) officers, (Richard Clarke), a pompous colonel (Allan Lane) and a desperate prostitute played by Sophie Louise Johnson. Like life for thousands of French war widows, it was the only way of surviving.

The two stories, Firebrace and Wraysford, intertwine but are broken with flashbacks, regularly returning to the 1910 summer of illicit love, a journey which introduces us to Jeanne, Isabelle’s sister, played demurely by Natalie Webster – she could be Stephen’s salvation if only he could see it. She becomes a link with the past when Stephen finds her during the war.

If there is a fault it is with this jumping backwards and forwards in time, which makes the play bitty and interrupts flow.

Director Emily Amstrong has done a fine job to smooth that out as much as possible and at least keep some semblance of continuity, while Newton jumps impressively backwards and forwards from injured and almost delirious lieutenant, or cold officer, to a fancy-free lover with no war in sight, all done with hardly a break in step.

It is a mammoth task to condense a 400 page novel to two and a half hours of theatre and the loss of the granddaughter chapters of the book allowed the play to concentrate on the real subject which, in this the centenary year of its end, is the horrors and futility of the War to End All Wars.


Jack's best mate Arthur, played with Yorkshire grit by Richard Price

There is some loss of detail in the adaptation though, for instance why does Wraysford turn up in his opening scene to spend a month or so with a French family, visiting René’s factory? Readers of the book will know, but newcomers to the tale are left to wonder. But these are script details rather than production omissions.

Armstrong and her cast have done a fine job with what they were given. There is not one character in the 20 strong cast who is not believable and Mark Nattress’s set deserves a bow on its own. We have a trench, the low entrance into the officer’s quarters, three entrances for tunnels, doorways and a bedroom entrance as well as a parlour with chaise longue. All on a single set built by a team under Jeff Darlow.

The play, apparently, is not recommended for either amateurs or small stages, so none out of two is hardly a good start. Sutton has a small stage, no wings and no flies but it still managed to create trench warfare, complete with flashes and explosions, a riverside picnic, a makeshift morgue, brothel, French home, tunnels and even a dramatic attack with soldiers piling over the top – perilously close to the ceiling for those who know the stage – all to whistles and gunfire.

Director Armstrong and David Ashton created dramatic and effective lighting, picking out single actors, creating blood red dawn skies, gloomy trenches or sunlit picnic scenes - whatever the need.

Their sound is equally dramatic with the constant rumble of gunfire in war scenes, mixed with birdsong, explosions and with emotive incidental music when a pause was needed for a scene change - while gunshots and explosions were loud with satisfying flashes.

It all helped to create a convincing, first class, well-directed drama for a night of moving, magical theatre. Forget amateur – this is theatre, and theatre at its best. To 17-03-18

Roger Clarke


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