Tag Archives: imagination

Holy Rollers Film Review: Are stories “inspired by real events” killing creative cinema?


Waiting around on plush leather sofas with the nibbles before the screening of Holy Rollers, one of the laidback critics said; “this must be a young person’s film”. A few of the other veterans nodded and chirped their agreement through mouthfuls of crisps and gulps of Coke. They surveyed us seated young’uns; youthful writers and bloggers seemingly suited to this tale of wild, animalistic New York and Amsterdam abandon, starring modern rising star and Best Actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg. They began a conversation about The Hangover, prompted by Justin Bartha’s role in this movie.

It was a one sided debate that continued as we took our seats; a small posse of expert cinemagoers agreeing that they did not see the appeal or comedy in the outlandish drunken antics of middle aged Americans. For them its garish humour seemed emblematic of the sort of mainstream bile lapped up by the youth of today. Hollywood studios continually plump for safe, unintelligent films and when one of them catches on, they pounce on the premise to produce sequels. The Hangover 2 is on the way this year of course, spiced up with rumours of increasingly daft cameos.

Another filmmaking trend of recent years is the success of “inspired by true events” storytelling. Half of this year’s Best Picture nominees at the Oscars were based on actual events or adapted from existing works. Of the genuinely original creations born specifically for the big screen, one of the most impressive was an animated sequel in the shape of Toy Story 3. The Social Network, The King’s Speech’s only serious rival, represented another growing pattern; the events that inspire filmmakers are in the increasingly recent past. Historical drama like The King’s Speech is an age old staple but the reimagining of stories that were in the news not so long ago is a fresher phenomenon.

What an ever swelling chorus of commentators bemoans about this is that it’s lazy storytelling. The Social Network was undoubtedly excellent and an absorbing piece of art as a whole that captured something of the essence of our time. But it was so dramatised and adapted that it was almost a work of fiction, built upon very loose foundations of fact. Wouldn’t energies be better spent on new stories rather than the complicated and potentially offensive fictionalisation of recent history?

The trouble is that as the Oscars went someway to demonstrating, when films are based on something real and interesting they can prove to be more skilfully crafted and lucrative. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on films like The King’s Speech and The Social Network; they are a valuable, enriching and enjoyable part of culture. But they should not stifle the flowering of completely different and new tales. They should not be made at the expense of thousands of undiscovered, productive and powerful imaginations. They mustn’t kill off the storyteller.

Wow what a rant. You’re probably waiting for me to start talking about Holy Rollers. But this is the overwhelming thing that struck me about the film, and at once the key and limit to its success. It takes a mostly unknown true story from the recent past (1998) of Hasidic Jews in New York smuggling ecstasy into the States from Europe. It should be applauded for shedding light on this remarkable tale and this is one of the pluses of adapting the truth I suppose; otherwise forgotten personal histories are preserved on film. However when aiming for a reasonably faithful retelling, as the filmmakers do here, their execution is constrained and drama can be minimised. Holy Rollers was unavoidably predictable and failed to engage as a result.

For Eisenberg, playing real people is becoming something of a habit. The comparisons between his character here, Sam Gold, and inexplicably likeable Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, are there from the start. Gold is bright but trapped in the unfulfilling monotony of study, much like Zuckerberg, only here he’s training to become a Rabbi. Like Zuckerberg Gold craves an immediacy lacking from his life and is clearly reluctant to embrace his lifelong fate in the prime of his youth. There’s something geeky yet rebellious about him. On the other hand he wants to succeed in the way expected of him. He wants to rise through the community and avoid losing face by truly impressing the beautiful wife arranged for him by his parents.  

His best friend and neighbour, Leon (Jason Fuchs) is more dedicated and accomplished at his studies. Now and then Gold seeks to rebel against his failings rather than stick at it, and eventually Leon’s brother, Yosef (Bartha) is there to offer him a way out and considerable extra cash to impress his family and prospective spouse. He works for an Israeli drug dealer importing merchandise from Amsterdam via above suspicion Jews. At first Leon and Gold go together on the understanding that they are bringing back important medicine. When the truth comes out Leon is appalled and knuckles down to study. But Gold has got the taste for both the money and the lifestyle.

He starts to show his knack with numbers and profit to drug dealer Jackie, becoming more and more integral to his operation. He is intoxicated and confused by the teasing sexual charms of Jackie’s girlfriend, played by Ari Graynor. There are some awkwardly hilarious scenes between Eisenberg and Graynor where both really show their comedy credentials with pleasing subtlety. Gold’s religious upbringing collides with this new world and prevents him from fully embracing the hedonism and the drugs and the sex. His naivety leads to the breaking of whatever bond he had with the girl.

Aside from this intriguing relationship and sub-plot, the unravelling of the narrative is far too clearly signposted. The visual style of direction in the film remains unchanged throughout, becoming bland, dreary and uninteresting. Eisenberg’s performance on the whole is solid and he does his best with some big emotional moments, but they never really ignited my interest. His transformation from a young man stifled by his surroundings into one embracing an illicit freedom, and calmly instructing new smuggling recruits to “mind your business and act Jewish”, doesn’t quite sit right or convince. Having said this despite the similarities to his performance in The Social Network, he does show a slightly broader range and give a good account of his talent. The failings probably lie more with the script.

Bartha’s believability as the volatile Yosef is strong and there is something charismatic and mysterious about his character. But once again the limitations of the true story format prevent us from seeing him develop into anything that exciting. The premise and setting of Holy Rollers may be initially interesting but ultimately the trajectory of the story is all too plain from the beginning. It might be a faithful reconstruction and it has its worthwhile moments, but this is a film that feels sanitised and seems to only scratch the surface of issues that could be explosively entertaining with greater imagination and drama.

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Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 3 – The Curse of the Black Spot


The TARDIS crash lands in a wardrobe. Beloved outfits are callously clobbered from their hangers and crumpled beneath the weight of Time Lord tech. Beyond the doors lie in wait neither lions or witches but the Doctor’s most terrifying foe yet. Amy and Rory will have wished they’d stayed at home. The spine chilling tunes of My Chemical Romance make it through the Doctor’s atmospheric filters, numbing even Amelia Pond’s fiery ginger heart with angst and melancholy. Outside in a teenage bedroom the curse of the blackheads lurks in the shadows.

Thankfully this wasn’t the plot to Episode 3. Pirates are about as far from serious adolescent tedium and clouds of Clearasil fumes as it gets. This was a fantastical and traditional romp, and in many ways a return to a classic Who episode formula that Moffat’s era has largely abandoned. Doctor picks up distress signal, Doctor lands in middle of dangerous situation, Doctor seems to work out what’s going on, Doctor works out what’s really going on is scientific and alien related, Doctor fixes things and moves on.

Some commentators are already calling this episode predictable and disappointing, but for me it was the most enjoyable of the series so far. I understand why for some a light hearted and often comic dash about a “becalmed” pirate ship is a rather lifeless contrast with the bombastic, secret stuffed opening two parter. But as I said last week, Day of the Moon was something of a letdown for trying to do too much, which affected its strength as a standalone story. The Curse of the Black Spot was a self contained and entertaining tale, that kept the key things that make the new Who so, so much better than the RTD period.

There was once again a wonderfully realised childhood fear and fancy, that has become Moffat’s trademark. He didn’t write this episode, but Stephen Thomson wrote the second episode of Sherlock, The Blind Banker, so the two have history. Last night’s theme was reflections. There is something scary about a reflection, particularly when it distorts or is not clear. Also when you think you see something that you can’t have done in the mirror image of your surroundings. I remember imagining as a child that mirrors could act as gateways, as they do for Lily Cole’s Mermaid here and also that there was a whole new world on the other side.

The Guardian’s weekly blog calls these ideas “high concepts” and I believe that these lifted the fun of the episode to a new level. There were some good red herrings in the plot that were difficult to work out and it was nice that even the Doctor’s reasoning took mistakes to progress, after he initially thought the creature could only appear through water. Then of course the big reveal was that there was another ship, a space ship, sending out a signal from the same place. This was typical Who as the historical fun and detail of the pirate ship was contrasted brilliantly with a sci-fi sick bay. The seemingly supernatural goings on of course had scientific explanations. The idea of a computerised nurse so fiercely protective of her human charges was an interesting commentary on the limits and excesses of technology, and Lily Cole’s turquoise illuminated figure had convincing and captivating FX.

The pirate ship setting, whilst not as impressive as the American locations of the series opening, nevertheless retained an air of higher quality about it. This wasn’t the Doctor running around a quarry or a council estate as he tended to do under RTD. Hugh Bonneville clearly relished playing a pirate and there were some good performances from other members of the supporting cast of swashbucklers. Cole did well despite not having a single line to say. Most of all this episode was a refreshing change of tone from the seriousness of the American episodes, with Rory mucking about under the influence of Mermaid song and Matt Smith unshackled from ambiguous and sexual banter with River Song to simply be a scatter brain genius. Having said this he still had chances to show his range in scenes with Bonneville and then in that climax with Rory and Amy. He continues to impress.

Twitter went mad as the show reached its climax. The general feeling was that a Time Lord who has been round the block a few times would know CPR. I agreed that this was ridiculous. They could have still had a dramatic moment with the Doctor helping Amy. He’s called the “Doctor” after all. The falseness of this moment undermined some of the other strengths of the episode. But they did certainly achieve drama once again and question the strength of Rory and Amy’s love for one another for the umpteenth time.

In terms of the ongoing secrets of the series, I much preferred how this episode handled them. There was a random appearance from the same woman Amy saw in Episode 2 and the Doctor pondering that fluctuating pregnancy scan. But the secrets were slipped into a great story, rather than taking centre stage and becoming too numerous.

Next week’s show, mischievously entitled The Doctor’s Wife (River Song wasn’t in the trailer, but then given the hints being his wife always seemed too easy), looks extremely promising. It could improve upon the simple fun of this show by touching on the Doctor’s fascinating past with more “high concepts”, still being a standalone story and hinting at those continued secrets. Bring it on.

Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 1 – The Impossible Astronaut


I was blown away by last night’s opener to the new series. It has once again confirmed my belief that Steven Moffat is an absolute, scientifically certified genius. He joins the handful of men whose lives I would like to steal, perhaps via some sort of wickedly clever sci-fi device, that of course, damn him, only he could probably dream up.

I was always a fan of Russell T. Davies and both Eccleston’s and Tennant’s Doctors, but for me there’s no doubt that Davies was always playing things safe now. Moffat has grabbed the nation’s beloved Timelord by the lapels and thrown him headlong into a series of interlinked stories, that are simultaneously the same and completely new. By taking risks Moffat has shown just how masterfully clever, funny, scary and gripping Doctor Who can be. People really ought to see that this is Television at its best, and writing at its best. If they don’t they are dullards with tame imaginations and bland dreams. When they blew out birthday candles as a child they probably wished that the trains would run on time. I’m sticking my neck out here.

But I’m being so uncharacteristically passionate and assured of myself for good reason: The Impossible Astronaut was an impossibly confident and swaggering opening to any series in the world. It wasn’t trying to please or conforming to any tried and tested formula. It was the realisation of playful ideas and desires formed in Moffat’s marvellous head. As several commentators have remarked, this is probably how Moffat always wished Doctor Who should be. He loved it but he knew it could be better. With all of time and space to play with, Doctor Who should never be safe, never be predictable, and never be limited. It should always be surprising and inventive. Moffat sees this.

And how I missed that music! The bow tie, the tweed, that blue box and Doctor Who Confidential!

With last year’s climatic two parter, Moffat showed he could do story arcs, drama and spot on contrast better than his predecessor. This time he’s once again wonderfully flipped expectations on their heads by beginning his second series at the helm with all the secrets and emotional punches of a series finale. And he set it in glorious 60s America!

FROM NOW ON THE SPOILERS BEGIN

He killed the bloody Doctor! In the first episode! And in all interviews he insists it’s real death, seemingly inescapable death, an end beyond even the healing powers of regeneration. All the clues within the show suggest it’s the actual end of the Doctor. Knowing Moffat, the answers to this, the biggest question of all, certainly will not be resolved in the second episode. Of course there’ll probably be a get out but knowing Moffat, not an easy one. The implications will hang over the entire series. And given the way he ended the last series, with the mysterious manipulator of the Tardis still hidden, and the half built Tardis in the Lodger unexplained (it turned up last night though!?), he could well carry the question of the Doctor’s death over to his third series.

 After all the Doctor we’re left with is two hundred years younger than the one so thrillingly and absorbingly killed. Moffat sent him gallivanting through history at the beginning, something Davies would never have done but is far truer to the potential of the character. He is not hopelessly tied to companions; he can travel in time for god’s sake.

The Silence are brilliant monsters. In appearance they pay gothic homage to the classic Roswell alien, but their defining ability is so very Moffat; you look away and you forget you ever saw them. Hence the tagline: “Monsters are real”. The image of them in Secret Service suits was so iconic and striking and scary, but not all that original. Crucially with Moffat it’s the ideas that have to be good first and foremost.

All the performances are improved from last time out, and in particular Smith as the Doctor himself is now completely confident. The role is his own. Moffat’s more intriguing Doctor is his Doctor and vice versa; the writing makes him so good, but Moffat’s writing also needs talented interpretation and portrayal.

So many questions were raised; I worry for even Moffat’s genius as to how they are resolved. The impact of any story arc will be diminished if every episode is so packed with “what ifs” as this one. It can’t maintain such a pace and accommodate endless secrets too. But obviously if I see this, so does the wise one. He’ll have more hints than previous series, rewarding the diehard viewer, but each episode will stand alone and grip in itself. And as I said earlier, Moffat’s disregard of convention will ensure that he doesn’t feel he has to resolve every question in this series. Why shouldn’t he throw all his good ideas at us at once and string them out tantalisingly?

I would now only begin to repeat the more eloquent words of more qualified commentators, so I shall stop and treat myself to watching the episode again. In the meantime check out The Guardian’s excellent, weekly post-show blog and feel free to check back here regularly for my own thoughts.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2011/apr/23/doctor-who-the-impossible-astronaut

All hail Moffat! Long live Who!

P.S. He’s put the Who back in Doctor Who and he says this is intentional. Thank goodness, let’s see more of the dark side to such a powerful and fascinating character!

Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Day 4


Today I finished The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham. I’ve also nearly finished a collection of short stories by Murakami I’ve been nibbling at for some time and begun Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, as well as reading The Kiss, a short while ago. On the recommendation of Tomcat (see his insightful, well written blog on books here: http://tomcatintheredroom.wordpress.com/) I have ordered an additional collection of short stories and shan’t post anything on “The Art of the short story” or attempt any creations of my own until I’ve delved through it and added further variety to my depth of knowledge.

I think that short stories are something I need to seriously study if I aim to be both a better reader and writer. They are economical examples of excellent craft, as well as being sublime, symbolic and inspired in their brevity. They often better capture the essence of a single idea or emotion than a fully fledged novel, padded out with all its requirements. I need to learn how to think of original ideas, as well as be more efficient with my language. Anyway enough of that till I’ve read some more and pieced some half decent musings together.

With my plans for short stories on hold, and an unexpectedly busy weekend ahead, I’m unsure where to turn for my next read. Certainly I have a pile of books to choose from and I can continue to consume short stories but I also feel I should be choosing something else substantial and making headway with it. My audio book too is on hold as I shall be unable to listen as attentively as I would like over the next few days. At the moment I’m leaning towards Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence as my next hurdle in this marathon month.

I say hurdle but on completing Triffids today I am starting to relish the immense range of books ahead of me. I was surprised by how different the novel by Wyndham was to an adaptation by the BBC, with Eddie Izzard as a villainous figure, a couple of years ago. From what I remember of this adaptation, Izzard played a character called Coker, brimming with a lust for power and the manipulative, ruthless personality to acquire it in a fallen world.

I might have remembered the BBC version incorrectly. If it was indeed BBC; could have been ITV? Probably BBC. Anyway in the novel Coker is an enemy of the protagonist and narrator initially. He believes that the sighted should do what they can to help the blind and cunningly kidnaps some of those that can still see, who were intending to start a new community in the country. He puts them to work looking after groups of the blind in the city, a plan destined to fail. But later he and main character Bill become friends, and Coker admits the error of his well intentioned ways. Throughout the book, because of lingering notions of the adaptation coupled with his earlier behaviour, I was expecting Coker to turn nasty and reveal his own personal malice and ambition. Instead he was very likeable, an intriguing and helpful character.

Triffids seems on the surface like sensational, pulp sci-fi. My girlfriend smirked and seemed put off the novel when the summary of the plot I gave her was inevitably ludicrous. But despite how ridiculous giant plants menacing the streets and fields of Britain may seem, Triffids is good, serious science fiction. Almost every page has Bill’s first person narration grappling with the ethical dilemmas of such an uneven apocalypse; with most of the population blinded but a few spared by odd circumstance. There are well written explanations of loneliness, realistic dialogue and fascinating interactions and bonds between strangers thrown together by terror. Not to mention warnings about nuclear weapons, biological experimentation, future energy crises and unsustainable lifestyles rolled into one idea. This book is impossible to adapt well. Nothing can replicate the way the Triffids are described or the realistic realisation of the probable truth with the passing of time. Screen versions require more drama, more enemies; a conspiracy of some kind that loses the truth in the essence of the original.

Triffids, for all its doom and grand ideas, was not a heavy or taxing read. Wyndham manages to keep things remarkably light. Part of this is to do with the zippy pace, another the narrative voice of Bill. But for me it was the quirky touches of early 1950s, post-war British period detail that made me smile amongst the horrors. Characters would constantly refer to situations as “queer” and Bill would refer to his love interest in an old fashioned way with terms like “darling” and “sweet”. She would often reply with “honey” in the most grave of circumstances or idea laden conversations. None of this was derogatory for women when balanced with the overall impression and philosophy of equality evident in the book; simply a sign of the author’s times and an innocence that would not leave his characters, no matter what.

So one book down. Hopefully many more to go. And I promise some accompanying articles at some point.

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.