THE commemorations of the centenary of the Great War have thrown up some incredible theatre.

While harrowing, the likes of War Horse and Wipers Times were also laced with moments of levity, humour and even a happy ending. The same cannot be said for Birdsong, currently being staged at the Oxford Playhouse.

Sebastian Faulks’s story of thwarted romance on the Western Front is beautifully staged but unrelentingly bleak.

Rachel Wagstaff has achieved the seemingly impossible in condensing Faulks’s expansive epic, which covers three generations, into a beautifully realised stage play - lean yet spacious - which deftly transports the audience between time frames, all against the backdrop of an imposing stage set of no-man’s land topped by barbed wire and an emblematic wooden cross.

We follow army officer Stephen Wraysford (perfect officer material in a reserved, dignified and understated Tom Kay), injured in battle, who clings to the memory of his lover – the beautiful and unhappily married Isabelle Azaire (Madeleine Knight – who channels just the right level of emotion and with a perfect French accent).

We are catapulted backwards and forwards from the time when Isabelle’s home by the Somme was a place of water meadows to the carnage of war – and the moment Wraysford realises his hopes and dreams have been dashed and any hope of settling down with the object of his obsessive love, cruelly snatched away.

This is a gut-wrenching production which plays fast and lose with our emotions, and even the hardest-hearted audience member will find themselves choke as they hold back the tears. James Findlay’s haunting melodeon and violin are unbearably tender – sawing at our heartstrings.

The scene where the men go over the top is particularly harrowing. and, one suspects, realistic. That it also tells the tale of the often-overlooked heroic tunnellers makes it all the more essential.

Theatre does not get much better – nor grittier – than this elegantly staged tale of doomed love, loyalty, sacrifice and suffering.


* Birdsong is on until Saturday. Book here...