Blog: Alice Brittain

A shortage of men means the actor is playing a soldier alongside her main role of Marguerite, in the stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong

Hero image

It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’m holding a rifle for the first time. It’s alarmingly heavy. I’ve got a metal helmet on my head and military webbing strapped to my chest, standing in a line with other overwhelmed souls. My cue to advance is the shrieking of whistles but frankly I’m getting distracted by the deafening explosions rumbling out of the rehearsal room speakers. This is only day three of rehearsals for the UK touring production of Birdsong, and I’m about to go over the top.

Birdsong is Rachel Wagstaff’s critically acclaimed stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s novel of the same name. I’m thrilled to be a part of its final tour this year, during the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. It’s a mammoth task staging such a monumental novel, and as a result is very much a memory play, set over the course of the Great War from 1916-1918 and dipping in and out of memories of pre-war France in 1910.

I play Marguerite, a French housemaid who is part of the stifling Edwardian household our hero Stephen Wraysford disrupts before the war. I also have other little moments that help tell this epic story, one of which includes being a foot soldier. With the majority of the play on the Western Front in the First World War, it was crucial to get those of us playing soldiers up to military code. When you’re 5 ft 9 like me (and lack enough boys in the drama club) you get fairly used to playing men. But in order to respect the story we needed to represent the historical and military aspects faithfully and accurately. Luckily we had Tony Green, our military adviser, to whip the cast into shape. This may or may not have included punishing anyone out of line with a First World War trench biscuit (as tasty as it sounds).

Having the writer in the rehearsal room helped us find clarity amongst the no man’s land tunnels and riverside picnics

With only three weeks to rehearse and hundreds of locations and time zones to cover in the play, rehearsals did feel a bit like being back at school – a school with 12 unruly children. We have a brilliant creative team guiding our lively actors, accent coaching with Tim Charrington, First World War song arrangements with Tim Van Eyken, history research sessions with assistant director Charlie Kenber, and learning how to fall with movement director Ste Clough, all alongside our drill and weaponry training. The cast are all wonderful and enthusiastically dived in, up for the Birdsong challenge and a six-month tour.

We also had the actor’s joy of having the writer in the rehearsal room, helping us find clarity amongst the no man’s land tunnels and riverside picnics. Rachel has been very generous with her time, popping in with rewrites and watching our stagger-throughs, and politely not commenting when I came in late with a drawing-room chair.

And all of this intense Birdsong madness was run smoothly and elegantly by the stage management team and our directors Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters. Charlotte’s been a godsend in the rehearsal room, letting us play and experiment and not feel tied to the style of previous productions. There is always the fear of doing the well-loved novel justice, but I’ve felt enormously supported by the Birdsong team. From the lighting to the sound design (sublime and, yes, reverberating work from Alex Wardle and Dominic Bilkey), I’ve felt in safe hands and part of something very special every step of the way.

Whether you’ve read the novel or not, there’s no denying the power of the story

We opened last week in the beautiful Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, after memorable technical rehearsals that revolved around grappling with bayonets, quick changes and a bit of backstage sprinting. Honestly, nothing beats walking onto the set for the first time in tech week (a stunning design by Victoria Spearing), or noticing how good everyone looks in their costume (thanks, Phoebe).

But once the audience was there, the chaos seemed to settle into place. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, there’s no denying the power of the story we’re going to be telling at 23 beautiful venues across the country. I feel privileged to be a part of this gripping, heartbreaking, extraordinary play. As Rachel Wagstaff comments in the programme notes, with the death of Harry Patch, there’s now not a single surviving veteran of the First World War left. Now more than ever it feels so important to honour those voices.

Looking forward to raising a glass at the pub afterwards – we might all need it.

Birdsong visits West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, 13-17 Feb; New Brighton Floral Pavilion in Wirral, 6-10 March; The Lowry in Salford, 3-7 April; York Theatre Royal, 5-9 June; and Derby Theatre, 11-16 June

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Blog: Alice Brittain

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.