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DVD Review: Morning Glory


The ongoing and increasingly shocking twists and turns of
the News of the World hacking scandal has prompted a complete rethink of the way we all think about the media. The public’s fury has rightly been fuelled by disgusting revelations exposing criminal practices that targeted ordinary
people or even the likes of vulnerable missing children. Prior to the game
changing news stories of recent weeks though, we were not all that bothered
about the odd tabloid listening in on the occasional romp or row between
footballers or actresses. An intense debate about privacy raged amongst some,
closely linked to the super injunction headlines from earlier in the year, but
for the vast majority of us the underhand tactics of the press were a given
that thankfully didn’t affect our daily lives.

But the momentous events of the past week have shown that
bad habits in an industry as far reaching as the media have to be taken
seriously. No one can avoid the press or the news in the modern world. Even if
you don’t buy newspapers you will blindly consume headlines or leave some bland breakfast show on in the background to help you acclimatise to the new day.

Morning Glory’s critical reception was lukewarm when it was
released in January of this year. It was universally dubbed a thoroughly ok
romantic comedy, riddled with flaws and sprinkled with just a smidgen of
appeal. In the light of the never ending phone hacking saga though, its message
is given far greater relevance and urgency.

One aspect of our relationship with the media highlighted by
the scandal, but buried under an avalanche of corruption and foul play, is
whether or not news has become too fluffy and meaningless. Defenders of certain tactics employed by the paparazzi say that the private lives of celebrities are only ruthlessly analysed because paying readers demand it. Whatever happened to “real” news items about ethical, humanitarian or political issues? It might still be possible to find some hard stories on the likes of Newsnight but in
the mainstream press, and on popular breakfast shows, the bulk of the content
focuses on fluffy items about rescue dogs or a woman who miraculously lost
weight by eating nothing except bacon.

Morning Glory is set in the world of breakfast telly. It follows Rachel McAdams as Becky Fuller, whose (somewhat strange) childhood dream is to make it to a big network as a producer of a news show. She loses her job at Good Morning New Jersey, where she was hoping to get promoted, and applies
everywhere until Jeff Goldblum calls her up and offers her the job at the
failing Daybreak, America’s least favourite start to the day. Becky ignores the
negatives like the bickering anchors and the nonexistent budget, choosing
instead to work as hard as she always has to make her dream a reality now she’s
finally at a network.

It doesn’t take long for Becky to stumble on, in her own bumbling way, the solution to Daybreak’s woes. She vows to get Harrison Ford’s legendary newsman Mike Pomeroy to replace her terrible male presenter, proving
in the process that you should never meet your heroes. The film follows her as
she sets about boosting the awful ratings of the show, which is just six weeks
away from being axed.

Morning Glory definitely has a whole host of things wrong with it, chiefly an uneven script with some dreary dialogue and pointless subplots. But it glides along averagely enough, throwing mostly unsuccessful cheap gags in your face. Its opening scene is a bafflingly awful way to start a film, which takes a sledgehammer approach to establishing that Becky is a busy
and clumsy character. Such weaknesses in the script let down Rachel McAdams, as she is for the most part a capable and attractive lead.

This is also a rom com with its fair share of positives however. It’s refreshing to see Harrison Ford having some fun on screen and most of the cast are good; even Patrick Wilson does alright with his underdeveloped love interest. There are also some belly laughs in the middle when the, far from sophisticated, physical humour is undeniably funny as the weatherman is put through his paces on a rollercoaster, all in the name of ratings. Then there’s the message behind it all.

The climax of Morning Glory sees Harrison Ford’s Pomeroy
trying to prove that there is a place for real, breaking news on morning
television. It is genuinely inspiring to see some substance injected into all
the ridiculous antics in the kitchen or out in the field. The hacking scandal
has given journalists and readers a much needed wake up call, hopefully in
terms of content as well ethical behaviour. Of course there’s a place for
entertainment and light chat, especially in the bleary eyed early hours, but
there is also always a place for enlightening fact and information. One need
not be sacrificed for the other. A great news story can also be great
television and great entertainment.

Morning Glory is far from faultless but when the credits
rolled it had won me over. It has an uplifting soundtrack, filled with songs
from the likes of Natasha Bedingfield and Michael Buble, and music from Bond
composer David Arnold. It may leave little time for subplots or romance to
develop but this does for once realistically show the all consuming day to day
life of a career focused protagonist. Above all this it is a fun romantic
comedy with something worthwhile to say, which is a rare thing these days. In
this way it mirrors what successful breakfast TV should be about (take note
Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley from ITV’s own Daybreak).

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DVD Review: Henry of Navarre


July the 4th is of course a very patriotic day for one nation in particular. Us Brits like to moan about the Yanks now and again because perhaps old rivalries never quite die no matter how close the friendship. We have an even fonder tendency to exchange banter with our French friends across the channel. On Independence Day the story of one of their most fascinating monarchs arrives on DVD.

Henry of Navarre (aka Henri 4) has all the ingredients of an epic historical romp. Its visceral battle scenes, complete with frenetic handheld camerawork as well as sweeping shots, have been likened to Ridley Scott’s iconic set pieces by Variety. Its period details are meticulous and vivid, from costume to setting. Its themes of religious freedom, love and power are at once more inspiring than modern day concerns and still relevant. And of course, as addictive TV dramas such as The Tudors and Rome have proved, no story of royalty and betrayal is complete these days without plenty of nudity and animalistic sex.

Henri, played by Julien Boisselier, is a charmer from childhood. The film begins with the prince of Navarre, a small region of France, paying the girls as a mere boy for a glimpse up their skirts. He goes on to seduce, overpower and caress several other women throughout the course of the film. The first set of bedroom scenes, with a Catholic he is told to marry to secure peace, verge on the violent, fuelled by religious resentment and suspicion. They scratch and bite like tigers just released from a zoo. Henry of Navarre is not a film short on beautiful women or erotic encounters.

But Henri is still likeable despite his cavorting, which prompts his second wife to describe him as a “horny old goat”. Boisselier plays him as a man disillusioned by the role and world he was born into but determined to change things pragmatically. The film begins with Henri leading the Protestant Huguenots against the greater part of France controlled by the Catholic Medici family. Henri is encouraged into a peacemaking marriage in Paris and during this part of the film within the city walls and the Louvre palace, overwhelming tension and intrigue builds, with relationships in the court difficult to decipher. Henri is well meaning but naive and the betrayal eventually comes with the tragedy of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre.

At this point it’s hard to understand why Henri doesn’t flee but eventually he wins the trust of the traitors and escapes successfully. He returns to his roots in Navarre and builds up the strength of his home. By the end of the film Henri is King of all of France, with the price being his religious belief and identity. But despite his growing wisdom, Henri’s childhood innocence and kindness is also preserved by Boisselier’s performance. This is a very modern film because Henri puts aside labels of religion and ancestry to cherish things that really matter in life and leadership; loyalty, friendship, love and freedom.

Henry of Navarre has its faults. It could do with being half an hour shorter but the two and a half hour runtime is more than filled with the substance of Henri’s fascinating life. Not all of the acting is assured, with Ulrich Noethen’s performance as Charles IX too over the top and caricatured regardless of the troubled nature of the monarch. The battle scenes, despite their initial impact, become repetitive. You are carried through it all though by the compelling complexity and emotion of Henri’s story and the appeal of his character. This would appear to be a diverse film faithful to history that both entertains and educates.

DVD Review: Sliding Doors


What if? It’s a big question in all of our lives. What if I’d told her? What if we’d stayed together? What if I’d got that promotion? What if I’d worked harder in school? What if I had had just one more day with her and the chance to say goodbye? If we’re not careful we can get snowed in by “what ifs”.

 We have to keep our heads down to escape drowning in never-meant-to-bes or choking on could-have-beens. The possibilities that we spotted passing by out of reach haunt us as regrets. The second chances we never even noticed are too numerous to contemplate and tease us occasionally in our dreams. Let the “what ifs” talk too loudly and their chatter overpowers the everyday routine. Let them grow too tall and even the little things are given dark significance in their shadow.

Sliding Doors is a film about the little “what ifs” bunching together in mundane ordinary life until they have enormous individual consequences. When it was released in 1998 it was greeted by a mixed critical reception but it has since gone on to gain a dedicated following. It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as fashionable young Londoner Helen, complete with believable English accent, who is fired from her job at a PR company. She heads for home via the tube. The film follows two separate paths through her life; one in which she gets the train and one where she fractionally misses it, unable to squeeze through the sliding doors of the title.

The actor Peter Howitt wrote the script and directs a very grounded take on the idea of parallel universes and an alternate reality. The concept could have been lifted straight from sci-fi but Sliding Doors watches more like a meditation on the nature of fate, albeit with an uplifting rom-com tinge. One Helen, the one that gets the train, finds her boyfriend shagging his ex in her bed, only to fall for a handsome stranger. The other is delayed again and again until she arrives home late and unaware of the affair. She therefore carries on her life as normal, working flat out to support him as he “writes a novel”.

The plot is not all that clever, despite the engaging concept of two storylines running in tandem, and the dialogue is not especially witty or sharp. The real strength of Sliding Doors lies with the overlapping lives of rounded, likeable characters, well realised with accomplished performances. Paltrow is accessible rather than whiny in the lead role. John Hannah is convincingly charming and funny because of the way he says things, rather than what he says. John Lynch is a great actor, as he proves in the upcoming Ghosted, and he doesn’t come off badly here despite playing the cheating Gerry, who is often just left to look bumbling and British on the end of a full on feminine bollocking. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays mistress Lydia as a caricature but she serves a purpose and Gerry’s mate Russell (Douglas McFerran) down the pub is hilarious as the sensible one.

None of it is sublime, even the characterisation is simply above average for the genre. The acting is very good but not career defining. That said I really liked Sliding Doors. Its commonplace tone makes it all feel like it could happen to you. There are some slightly surprising twists in the climax and I was a little moved and amused in places. Its parting message is somehow both more resonant and bearable than most romantic comedies. Some things are inevitable. And there’s always hope.

The Hangover: Part 2


It’s not as shit as lots of critics are saying it is. But it is mostly shit.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Right? That’s a solid rule of life, tried and tested and formed from extensive experience. We trust such wise old mottos for a reason. They must work.

Well they work to an extent. This sequel takes the rule to the extreme. It takes it much too far. As many have already said, Part 2 is pretty much a scene by scene remake of the original. If you’ve seen The Hangover this will be predictable. The jokes might initially force a smile, a smile of recollection, a hint of the laughter from your first viewing of Part 1. Then they will become torturously tiresome.

Most of the attempts at humour in the film left me absolutely cold. I watched, aware that this was meant to be funny, conscious of idiotic laughter elsewhere in the cinema, feeling completely uninterested. The times that you are tempted to the verge of a giggle feel as if they are due to an uncontrollable infectious reaction, a mindless physical spasm, spreading from a gaffawing buffoon or someone who hasn’t seen The Hangover. Or someone who laughs at the first syllable of country.

Actually on a few occassions, no more than three, I felt compelled to genuinely laugh. For whatever reason, be it my easily shocked innocence or taste for inappropriate jokes, I wanted to let myself chuckle. BUT so appalled was I by the lack of creativity, the sheer cheek of the filmmakers to release a sequel with EXACTLY the same format and plot, I forced myself to conceal my pleasure. Or limit it to the slightest “ha”. Quite apart from the fact I knew in my head it was awful, there were also some gags that strayed over my (usually rather wide) line of decency on issues from sexuality to race.

There are a handful of enjoyable things in Part 2 however. Chief among them is the wife-in-waiting, played by Jamie Chung. She is delightfully pretty and sexy, and not in the crude way you might expect from these films. Her character is not spectacuarly rounded, lifelike or convincing, but simply the stereotypically perfect girlfriend/partner/wife. She is gorgeous, intelligent, caring, understanding, perhaps even submissive. It’s briefly nice to indulge the impossible daydream of having such a devoted soul mate.

Bangkok is pretty much the perfect location for this film. But I’m not going to indulge it any further by picking out the positives. It is mostly irritating. When I saw Holy Rollers, I realised Justin Bartha could act and play interesting characters. Here he goes back to his career of missing out on crazy happenings, this time not on a roof but by a turquoise resort pool, fretting over five star breakfast. Seriously couldn’t they have shuffled the Wolf pack to include him this time? Just shake things up with a little change?

A handful of reviews have speculated that this sequel must surely be a piece of high concept art, mirroring the actual weary effects of a hangover. The first film was the wild night out and this is the comedown. These 102 minutes of my life aren’t refunded with such creative criticism though.

This has turned into a pointless rant. All I meant to say is that the critics are 90% right about The Hangover: Part 2. And the 10% they’re wrong about is not worth your time or money.

Jackass 3D


Here’s how I expected Jackass 3D to play out:

Annoying American Moron 1: You ready for this man?
Annoying American Moron 2: Yeah dude, ready as I’ll ever be.
Annoying American Moron 1: Ok man brace yourself.
Annoying American Moron 2: Oh Christ dude wait up…
Annoying American Moron 1: 1, 2…here it comes man…3

(Some form of speeding projectile crashes into Moron 2’s private parts)

Annoying American Moron 2: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!
Annoying American Moron 1: Bulls-eye man!
Dimwit Onlookers: Hahahahahahahaha awesome!

(Close-up of throbbing impact area, rendered an unappealing, dangling reality by the magic of 3D)

Repeat scene to fill film.

This still isn’t a million miles from several scenes in Jackass 3D. Needless to say their painful, sickening stunts are more inventive and impressive than my example, but imagine my surprise when I didn’t find the American morons annoying. Imagine my even greater surprise when I left the cinema thinking of Jackass 3D as the finest example of 3D technology I am yet to see and a film that gets back to the exciting core of the genuine movie experience.  My previous experience of the Jackass franchise had me fearing a series of painful experiments on the man vegetables, but this turned out to be so much more than that.

Firstly then the use of 3D. Jackass 3D’s title sequence is nothing less than a visual spectacular that leaves other films I have seen through the Elton John style magic shades in the dust. Avatar resembled a video game most of the time for all the ranting and raving about the uniqueness of the experience, and for me there was miniscule wow factor in watching a poorly conceived game I couldn’t even play. Similarly Alice in Wonderland was an arty, surreal cartoon and Toy Story 3, despite its brilliance in other areas, an animation. There’s still a feel of artificial computer generation to the wonderfully distinctive action sequences.

In Jackass however there’s no sense of fakery or techno tweaking to the visuals; just silly, outlandish, dangerous, exciting stunts, performed by real life humans, in exquisite, vivid detail in front of you. The title sequence is full of colourful and crazy costumes and sets. Best of all it’s a slow motion compilation of a series of outrageous set pieces that brilliantly use 3D. A ceiling fan is decimated, smashed to smithereens by the head of a flying moron. Paint balls fly out of the screen at you. It’s all obviously purely performed and crafted to justify the 3D of the title, but a film like Jackass, with no conventional requirements like plot, gets away with it. And the reason it all looks so spectacular is because someone could afford to just play with 3D for once, rather than make an ordinary film and chuck a few gimmicky effects in somewhere.

Whilst the rest of the film comes nowhere near to the 3D wizardry of the opening, apart from an explosive, debris strewn end, it has its own charms. And when 3D effects do occasionally pop up throughout, they are all the more impressive and appropriate for being shots of real things: plumes of water leaping from the screen, a party popper inflated by on-demand fart reaching out of the screen towards you. When the 3D effects aren’t deployed though this is still an enjoyable film, finishing just as you start to become mildly bored by it all. Well perhaps enjoyable is a poorly chosen word. Certainly watching a room full of men puking after drinking the “sweat suit cocktail” and a man propelled skywards in a porta-loo full of shit, is far from enjoyable. These scenes have the whole room collectively groaning and looking away, chuckling with embarrassment and suppressing the gag reflex.

Other scenes are genuinely enjoyable and funny, such as the opening “high-five” gag in which various members of the Jackass team are floored by a giant hand, and the “electric avenue” tazer gauntlet challenge. Again the entire cinema gasps and giggles at the pain. And much of the humour here comes from the irresistible on-screen camaraderie of a group of idiotic, thrill seeking guys having a good laugh. They’re rarely as irritating as I feared; you’re sucked in by their games and the sight of full grown adults clinging to the joys of childhood.   

Frankly it seems stupid to dwell on what Jackass 3D isn’t. It obviously lacks the conventions of an ordinary movie. It won’t be for everyone. But by being different it gets back to the core of what movies are about. Going to the cinema should be a group experience in which rows and rows of people are provoked into a reaction; an ooh, an aah, a chortle or a scream. Good cinema sparks conversation afterwards. Jackass 3D shocks the audience. It ticks all the boxes and by properly exploring 3D technology, finds itself at the cutting edge of filmmaking. Most of all though, it’s damn good fun.

On London/Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre


I have fallen in love again. How refreshing though that it’s not a woman that is the focus of my affection, but a city. Like a woman, this city is indifferent to me, but unlike with women this vast, inexpressible indifference merely adds to the irresistible charm of the place. I like feeling insignificant and anonymous within its boundaries, in fact I positively relish the sense of oblivion. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the possibilities; it all submerges every little, trivial concern I might have. I drown in the ocean of seemingly limitless fuel for my imagination and oh how good it feels. To feel simultaneously satisfied that I am gradually gaining a geography of the place, whilst barely scratching the surface of what is really there, of all that’s on offer. Gorgeous girls galore, lines and lines of landmarks, tearaway taxis, bulging buses, teeming theatres, pulsing pavements and many marvellous museums; it’s all there. If variety is the spice of life then London has a hot twang I am acquiring a ravenous taste for.

But now I am worried, I do not have my next trip lined up, pencilled in the diary. I am hungry for the city and fear the withdrawal symptoms. Having only recently discovered the joys of walking the capital I crave the stroll crammed with sights and sounds. How can anything else compare? Things simply happen in London. And on such a majestic scale that it still feels like the centre of a world empire, still feels like a great, churning engine of commerce that could achieve so much. There’s so much to discover. I’m not one for shopping, unless it’s an awe inspiring jaunt through the grandeur of Harrods, not buying anything but soaking up my surroundings. And yet this weekend the scale of the shops in London surprised my senses and seduced me. Why I don’t know, I’ve always known they were there, been there before. But this time I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to able to pop out from home, my own base, to these places, perhaps with one item in mind, only to leave with others you forgot you wanted or didn’t know you did. I could have spent hours and hours trawling through books, it seemed impossible that they would not have what you wanted and even if they didn’t there was bound to be at least three or four alternatives you’d never have thought of. You’d feel nervous about the state of your bank balance and a little guilty, but in an exciting way; how could life ever be boring? And in some places things were cheaper anyway! What am I still doing out in the dead limbs of the countryside, when everything gathers there at the heart of everything?

Of course I know this is naive and not everything about London is great. I felt pursued by Cafe Neros the whole weekend for example, to such an extent that my train even passed one of their out of town storage facilities. They seem to have an outpost on every street. It’s either them or Pret A Manger, or often both. And I know perhaps a prolonged stay might have me cursing the dirty grime and toil and danger of city life. But increasingly now, in what I would like to think of as my clearer moments, I am realising that “life is islands of ecstasy in an ocean of ennui”, as The Dice Man puts it, and London is the sort of place that the islands are more frequent. I mean for me at the moment simply a glimpse of the skyline is thrilling and I can’t imagine that thrill ever dying out completely. So I think I’ve decided as one of my life’s few certainties that I want to live in our glorious capital city, even if I must wait a few years: London is the goal.

Anyway onto the main event then, after the distracting diversion of my musings. I was in London yet again to see a stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ successful novel Birdsong. It seemed appropriate that I would see this acclaimed First World War story dramatised a day before Remembrance Sunday, but insensitively inappropriate, if only in a trivial way, that the home of the production was the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. Whilst there were moments of comedy in Birdsong this was hardly stand-up and the key overarching themes were mainly grim and immensely serious. Nevertheless I swallowed my grievances about the suitability of the theatre and purchased a programme.

Perusing it prior to the start of the play I was intrigued by the sensitive artwork and pleasantly surprised to recognise a number of the performers. I knew Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame, was playing central character Stephen Wraysford but couldn’t really care less about his previous body of work. However Nicholas Farrell has an impressive stage, film and TV CV. I think it was predominantly Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that I recognised him from, in which he played Horatio. But he’d also been in Torchwood and Spooks. Spooks is one of my favourite series, not least because of its endless vistas of a glamorous London, and I was delighted to find that Isabelle Azaire, the main female love interest of Stephen, would be played by Genevieve O’Reilly, who played a double crossing CIA agent in the last series, working for a shadowy secret organisation and seducing MI5 officers with sultry American tones. The other most recognisable face was that of Lee Ross, playing the role of vital sapper character Jack Firebrace, whose credits included Eastenders and The Catherine Tate Show.

I did have slight misgivings about the fact that Farrell would play both cruel, unloving French husband Rene Azaire in the early scenes and Captain Gray later on, just as Iain Mitchell would play both the insufferable French oath Berard and then the insufferable English oath Colonel Barclay. But both actors produced such accomplished performances that I was willing to overlook this choice of economy. In fact in my view Farrell’s experience clearly showed and he was the highlight of the play in terms of quality acting. I had wondered if the performers would adopt French accents for the French scenes but was relieved they did not, with Farrell differentiating between his two characters sufficiently with a well executed Scottish accent for Captain Gray. The fact that everyone was speaking English in France was dealt with as matter-of-factly and skilfully as in the novel, with one of the characters remarking at some point that Stephen’s French was excellent, for which he thanked them.

I had always liked the novel by Faulks. In fact at the time I had first read it I was enthralled by it. A friend of mine remarked the other day that it had felt too much like a novel and I know what she means. It feels terribly contrived at times and is riddled with cliché and the play does not get away with them so well. I really should have re-read the book in order to properly critique the play and also in order to recall whether or not it was truly as good as I remember. Perhaps I was simply seduced by the period as the war fascinates me, as well as the romance, I’m a hopeless romantic. But from memory I know that the narrative sucked you into Stephen’s predicament so you felt strong ties with him. What I liked was the way the powerful and passionate love scenes early on gave Stephen a back-story and purpose that differentiated him from the usual heroes of the trenches. The book is rich with incident and historical detail but is not overloaded with it; here I disagree with my friend. I have read historical fiction that makes a fetish of research, David Mitchell’s latest The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did it for long periods, but Birdsong did not. In Birdsong the focus was the emotional and timeless themes of humanity.

Some of the most affecting and accurate of these themes are difficult to express in words on a page, let alone dramatically on stage. There’s no doubt that a lot of what is good from the novel does not successfully transfer and the shame for the play is that Rachel Wagstaff tries to convey Stephen’s motivations and musings poorly. Neither Wagstaff’s writing nor Ben Barnes’ acting is up to the long passages in which Stephen is supposedly composing thoughts for his diary, alone at the front of the stage. Much of the first act, in which Stephen falls for the married Isabelle, is driven by his private reflections. Of course it was always going to be impossible to transform the explicit, erotic sex scenes of the novel to the stage without creating a very different type of production altogether, but for the entire first act you can sense Wagstaff wrestling with the dilemma of how to convey the intensity of Stephen’s love adequately, knowing how vital it is to the events that follow. Somehow in the novel you get caught up and follow Stephen along, not questioning whether this is just seedy, passionate lust or misguided youthful emotions. In the play though when Barnes says “I love you and I always will”, each time it sounds childish and clichéd and I would find myself agreeing with my friend more and more. Barnes just seemed far too smitten in a sickening sense, rather than a stirring, moving one.

In the programme I found that Wagstaff’s first play had been called The Soldier and was set in 1915. So she was on more familiar ground in act two when the action jumps forward to The Somme in 1916 and a wartime setting. It’s disappointing that someone could not have done a better job of act one though as I know how riveted and gripped by it I was in the book and genuinely despondent to find the action skip so far ahead. And caring about the love story becomes so crucial later on. Nevertheless I am making it sound worse than it was. Despite the clunky awkwardness of Barnes’ soliloquy like sections at times, the actual scenes were passable to good, if lacking the emotional  power (and erotic excitement) of the novel. And act two was a considerable improvement, despite the tedious diary format continuing, only this time with working class lad Jack Firebrace’s toned down, simpler reflections on things and letters back home. Generally though the camaraderie of the front Wagstaff captures well, with the humour of jolly idiot Berard in act one replaced by male banter and the idiocy of officers.

Another friend of mine, this one a fellow fan of Birdsong, was eager to hear how the tunnels were reproduced on stage. For this was another unique feature of Birdsong’s take on the war: action in the competing tunnels both sides dug out beneath no man’s land for various reasons. There were communication tunnels, fighting tunnels and explosive tunnels for blowing up the enemy from below. Birdsong has nearly been made into a film several times and I always thought that the claustrophobic, atmospheric scenes in tunnels, particularly the shoot-out, would make dramatic action set pieces. And so they did on stage too. Much of the effect of being underground was created through lighting, with blackness enveloping the stage besides gentle amber glows at the front. The rest was done by a low overhanging wall that came about half-way down the stage. The actors would then crawl beneath this, before emerging into the front of the stage, further along the tunnel where you could stand. Then for the fight with German soldiers, when two tunnels found each other, dust poured out along with sounds of an explosion. The Germans emerged stunned and surprised, brandishing pistols at the elevated rear of the stage, looking down on the Brit characters at the front. Shots that smash your ear drums were fired and an even louder, brighter grenade thrown. I had never seen such exciting scenes on stage.

But then I’m still a relative newcomer to theatre. I now have the inclination to discover more of it (particularly the charm and sophistication of Shakespeare) but it’s a world that was mostly cut off to me whilst growing up. Edging my way to my seat was still an act of deft, death defying balance as far I’m concerned. This is not me moaning though; I absolutely love the look and feel of the theatre. Just to know the building oozed history compared to the local multiplex was so interesting and fascinating to me. And even my balcony seat, when suitably armed with £1 binoculars, was the best of both worlds; broad overview of everything coupled with close-ups.

In the final act Birdsong came into its own. Even Barnes, who had struggled to convince me he had the required acting heft to play Wraysford, upped his game a gear. It was now that I remembered how this portion of the novel was the most moving and the play benefitted considerably from ditching the unnecessary modern day section of the novel, which seemed to be there simply to reflect Faulks’ own experiences in researching the book. Faulks and Wagstaff had both been heavily dependent on the diaries of soldiers in their writing process, but the difference was Faulks had interweaved his research in a different, rich style, whereas Wagstaff had actually simply used the diary device in her drama; it seemed unimaginative and unable to truly engage the audience. In this final chunk of the play the lonely speeches at the front of the stage were ditched almost completely and when they were used they worked much better. There was also more time on stage for both Jeanne and Stephen, who had a connection I did not recall from the novels but was intriguing. Jeanne was wonderfully played by Zoe Waites. She seemed strongly drawn to Stephen, desperate to share her sister’s secret with him to ease his gloomy woe but too loyal to break her promise.

Then there were the big climatic scenes: a reunion between Stephen and Isabelle and a claustrophobic collapse that imprisons Jack and Stephen in the tunnels. I wish I could remember the novel better, as I have a feeling there were changes, particularly as I remember a bird being used in the tunnel and Stephen’s phobia manifesting itself down there. Generally though this theme was dealt with well, with some nice dialogue between Stephen and Jeanne when she tries to lift him from depression and they debate the merits and evils of Birdsong. The scene in which Stephen sees Isabelle again was so moving, far more so than the joyous larking about of the early affair by the river and despite these scenes not completely convincing me. I was so affected by the speeches about love, even with some corny, cheesy lines, that I had to rush to the toilet when the play had finished and dispatch a rash text to the one I love in vain; my equivalent of a drunken splurge of affection, so intoxicated was I by the drama that I simply had to tell her I loved her, it was all that mattered. The effect this scene had on me somewhat overshadowed the final scenes with Jack in the tunnel and the rescue and the end of the war. But these were also well done. I was so relieved the play ended on a high and overall there’s no doubt that it was a quality production, if a little flawed at times. From my recollections of the novel though it was never going to surpass its brilliance, merely echo it and be good in different ways.