It’s a novel that has won the hearts of thousands since its publication in 1993. It’s been given the Hollywood treatment and more recently been adapted for television to mixed reviews. It was only a matter of time then that it would be adapted for the stage as well.
Great swathes of the book have necessarily been trimmed and tweaked in order to make it work for this new touring production. It has been reshaped following a previous incarnation directed by Trevor Nunn in the West End and it feels all the better for it.
Told through flashbacks and memories the structure whizzes about with fearsome speed and can leave one a little dizzy with time travel sickness on occasions. However this soon eases and the pace falls into a better rhythm as we progress through the first act.
The tale of doomed love set amongst the unimaginable horrors of the First World War is poignant and thought provoking. Set also amongst the tunnelling warriors that are virtually unheard of in most tales of the time we are educated as well into a terrifying subterranean world that is equally awe inspiring and horrific. Hundreds of men lost their lives burrowing underneath enemy lines loaded with explosives and wading through horrific conditions. With simple but wonderfully evocative designs by Victoria Spearing we are transported into this hellish quagmire with an unswerving truthfulness.
That unromanticised truthfulness is brought to the fore in the performances of the consistently excellent cast. George Banks as Stephen puts in a performance of real feeling. His intensity is a little too much at times and borders on something closer to psychopathic with his wide staring eyes and rabid shouting, but generally he gives the sense of a broken man with great and exhausting skill. His lover Isabelle is played with elegance by the statuesque Carolin Stolitz. Although it takes some time to warm to Stolitz’s portrayal of the battered wife of a French nobleman she manages to strip away the protective layers and show the vulnerability within.
The revelation of the night is in the remarkable performance by ex-Blue Peter frontman Peter Duncan. Dealing with the loss of his son from far away and grittily showing his steely determination to fight for his country Duncan breaths rattling life into Jack Firebrace. Searing in pain following all kinds of injury he displays a delicate grasp of great British doggedness and a genuinely touching poignancy that brings the horrors of this Great War straight to the human beating heart.