Wagstaff has inevitably condensed and simplified the book, mainly by omitting the modern story that runs parallel to the Edwardian plot, but the focus remains on the pre-war romance and war experience of a young Englishman.
In France in 1910 he has a passionate affair with an unhappily married French woman but they are separated. We next see him as an officer in the trenches, almost killed in battle and, in the face of the horrors of war, rapidly losing all his faith in an orderly and benign universe, and there is a secondary plot line involving a soldier whose life keeps crossing his.
The officer meets the woman again, of course, and there are several more tear-jerking plot twists before an ending somewhat more ambiguous and unresolved than in the novel.
It is noteworthy that the single most moving thing in the play occurs during a scene change, when the passage of time is denoted by the projection of a seemingly endless list of names of the dead at the Somme. That strange but powerful fact - that it was in this war that the world first really understood that the central truth of war is that young men die - remains the legacy of 1914-1918, and is more emotionally evocative than anything in Wagstaff's dramatisation or Trevor Nunn's production.
If the central story of the novel is the young man's maturing, first through love and then through war, then Ben Barnes is unable to take us through that arc, his character leaping too abruptly from callowness to despair.
The character of the enlisted man he befriends has been stripped down until he is too sweet and holy to be believed, and Lee Ross can do little but play him as generic salt-of-the-earth yeoman. Genevieve O'Reilly's Frenchwoman is a little too English rose to be the haunting passion of a man's whole life.
The set consists almost entirely of clever projections by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington that are more evocative of the 1910 idyll than of the battlefields.
Lovers of the novel may well enjoy this adaptation, but they will be filling in much of the texture and emotion themselves. Others are likely to find this a generic war story with no more to it than is inevitable in the material.
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- Birdsong - Comedy 2010