It seemed somewhat appropriate, on the 96th anniversary of Wilfred Owens death, to see a play that charted the last few years of his life. So last night I headed to the Wolverhampton Grand to see the dramatisation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, adapted for stage by Nicholas Wright.
For those of you who have read the books and/or know the story of how Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met, then the rest of the review will contain no spoilers. For everyone else, I’m going to be as circumspect as I can but there will be elements of the plot mentioned, as well as aspects of Sassoon and Owen’s lives. So, if you want to be on the safe side, you need to stop reading after the next paragraph!
Review in brief: I thoroughly enjoyed it and would wholehearted recommend seeing it. The adaptation was excellent, the staging worked brilliantly and the actors themselves were wonderful. I hope it does get transferred to the West End, both to give it maximum exposure to as wide an audience as possible and for the more selfish reason that I would very much like to see it again and won’t have a chance for the rest of the run at Wolverhampton.
Now for the more detailed bit:
Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy is the best historical novel set in WWI I’ve read. She treats the characters who actually lived with sensitivity and respect, the characters that are purely her own fit perfectly and complement the narrative, plus her attention to the details of the period bring everything to vivid life. In short, they are brilliant, all three of them. So I was quite excited when I saw the adverts for the stage play and very intrigued as to how they would shape the books into two and a half hours of theatre and, if I’m honest, a little worried that it wouldn’t quite work. Thankfully my fears were groundless.
The play takes the majority of its script from the first book (although covers the same time period as the trilogy) and focuses in the main on the relationship between Sassoon and Owen (both in terms of writing poetry together and the reading that they were romantically involved) together with the story of Billy Prior (one of Pat’s own characters). The emphasis is on the development of Owen’s skills as a poet, the war experiences of Sassoon, Owen & Prior, and the influence Dr Rivers (who was an exceptional person as well as a brilliant and compassionate doctor) had on each of them. Rivers, as he is in the books, is the thread which links them all together and gives the narrative shape and structure.
Staging wise, it works very well. There are (I think, I didn’t actually count) around twenty four scenes in total, many of them requiring the movement of furniture or people, but yet it doesn’t make the story broken or disjointed. The use of lighting, the clever demarcation of the stage and the slick, seamless speed the actors and stagehands manage the changeovers adds to the overall atmosphere and story, rather than detracting from it. There are significant numbers of props but they are necessary to set the mood and, at least to my eyes, are in keeping with the period.
One truism of theatre though, is that the scripting and the staging don’t matter a jot if the cast isn’t right. In this case, the casting was spot on. Tim Delap’s Sassoon was a glorious mix of languidness and self-righteous fury, Jack Monaghan gave Prior just the right amount of sardonic wit and self-loathing and Stephen Boxer’s Rivers, whilst being older than Rivers was at the start of the book, brings the gravitas that the character needed. However, for me, it was Garmon Rhys who stole the show, playing Owen just as I imagined him to be, showing his initial boyish enthusiasm for Sassoon and his poetry but nonetheless tempering it with an equally boyish seriousness. He pitched the performance perfectly, something all the more astounding given that it is his first professional acting job since graduating from LAMDA. I shall definitely be keeping an eye out for him in other productions.
There were moments that made me jump with fright, moments that I struggled to watch and moments that brought tears to my eyes. I especially enjoyed the scene that was not taken from any of the books but written especially for the play. I won’t say what it is (that really would be a spoiler) but it was definitely needed and worked extremely well, as attested to by Pat Barker, who saw the play on opening night (as well as having approved the script), and said she was very happy with both the additional scene and the play as a whole.
I very much hope that it plays to full houses for the remainder of its run and both shares the stories of Sassoon & Owen and brings Pat Barker’s books to a wider audience.
Further details of where you can catch the play before the run ends can be found here on the Touring Consortium Theatre Company website.