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Can the First World War tearjerker's stage offensive pack the same emotional punch as Sebastian Faulk's knockout novel? I went to the Everyman Cheltenham to find out.

soldiers on stage Birdsong

I always feel a certain trepidation about going to see a stage adaptation of a novel I’ve really loved and lived through in my imagination – and if there’s been a riveting TV series too, well, will a play just be setting itself up for a fall? And, in the case of Birdsong, what about the sex!? It’s pretty steamy stuff on the page (and on the telly Eddie Redmayne and Clémence Poésy certainly didn’t leave much to the imagination), so how would that play out in the theatre?! Would it be toe-curlingly embarrassing?

Well, I needn’t have worried. In the hands of the super talented Rachel Wagstaff, this adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ heart-rending tale of love and loss in the First World War is a triumph. And the sex scenes are adroitly managed – things get a bit saucy (one small wardrobe malfunction and you might see something you’re not supposed to), but nothing you’d need to hide granny’s eyes from.

Stephen and Isabelle embrace in Birdsong

Stephen played by Tom Kay and Isabelle played by Madeleine Knight keeping it clean

The show is currently on its fourth tour, which is testament to Wagstaff’s skilful distillation of the story. She’s not been afraid to cut – the whole 1970s section has been excised – so you stay firmly in northern France, flitting between 1916 and 1910.

From left: soldiers James Findlay as Cartwright, Riley Carter as Evans, Simon Lloyd as Arthur, Alfie Browne-Skyes as Tipper and Jeffery Harmer as Barclay. Photography by Jack Ladenburg

It opens on the first day of the Somme where you meet Stephen Wraysford, a lieutenant in the British Army, and sapper Jack Firebrace, who has just received devastating news that his son is suffering from diphtheria. Tom Kay plays Stephen and Tim Terloar, Jack, and their powerfully emotional performances really carry the audience along as their heart-rending narratives are played out.

Tim Treloar as Jack Firebrace with Alfie Browne-Skyes’s Tipper

The set, lighting and sound are all cleverly managed to enable the smooth and realistic flashbacks to 1910, and the home of nasty factory owner René Azaire and his beautiful and much younger wife Isabelle. The erotic relationship between Isabelle and Stephen is neatly set in motion with a game of blindfold and an accidental embrace around the hips, and all the scenes between the two of them are charged with sexual tension you won’t cringe at, and you really believe in their burgeoning love – which without the interior dialogue of a novel or freedom of film is quite a feat. Madeleine Knight’s Isabelle has something of Clémence Poésy in it (she even looks a bit like her, lucky lady), and on the night I went she confidently carried off the scene in which her modesty could have come undone.

Isabelle and Stephen get close and personal

There are light touches from the soldiers with dirty jokes and songs to alleviate the emotional intensity of the story – Riley Carter, aka Stacey Slater’s brother Kyle in EastEnders, is particularly good as randy Welshman Evans. And the fiddling prowess and fine voice of folk singer James Findlay is also cleverly used to bring pathos to the painful moments of loss. The final scene between Stephen and Jack had me blinking tears from my eyes and wishing I’d brought a hankie. Seriously! And it was so powerful I even dreamed about it! So triple crown to Birdsong – novel, TV drama and stage adaptation all bang on. Put it on your not-to-be-missed list!

Birdsong is on at the Everyman Theatre Cheltenham until Sat 24 Feb,

Additional reporting by Tonicha Luffman

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