All the familiar tropes we associate with the First World War are present and correct in this adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s 1993 novel: plucky working class ‘Tommys’; a handsome young upper-crust officer; a selection of patriotic songs – and, of course, the overpowering futility of the ‘war to end all wars.’ Faulks’s 800 page doorstop tome must have been a challenge to adapt but Rachel Wagstaff has done an efficient job of distilling it down to its key points.
The stage version focuses primarily on two characters. Jack Firebrace (Tim Trelor) is a ‘sewer rat,’ one of the sappers whose job it is to tunnel for miles under enemy lines, planting explosives and then detonating charges. It’s thankless, back-breaking work and the claustrophobia of the Firebrace’s situation is cleverly conveyed. Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) is an artistically inclined young officer, haunted by memories of an affair he had in France – before the outbreak of war – with Isabelle (Madeleine Knight), a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship with a much older husband. The constant segues – from the trenches of 1916 to his time with the Azaire family in Amiens in 1910 – are at first a little disorienting but, once I have settled into the rhythm, I begin to appreciate how skilfully the transitions have been achieved. The final scene of act one as the allies prepare to go ‘over the top’ at the Battle of the Somme is particularly powerful and, for me, the dramatic high point of the play.
The second half takes us on to the aftermath of the Somme, where Wraysford, wounded in the battle and assigned a desk job returns to Amiens to search for his former lover. If it lacks some of the urgency of the first half, there’s still much here to enjoy, not least the plaintive vocal stylings of James Findlay, whose affecting voice lends the songs of the period extra resonance.
This is a powerful and mournful play that skilfully combines elements of brutality and romance. It may be an oft-told story, but – in this case – familiarity does not breed contempt. In fact, in these chaotic times, it feels sadly prescient.