Imagine the First World War and the image likely to spring to mind is of a ruined land, barbed wire and mud, and the misery of young men enduring the cold, filth and terror of Europe’s killing fields.

The writings of poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and novels like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as the widespread use of photography, created an enduring impression of the trauma suffered in the long episodes of trench warfare. Certainly interest in the subject shows no sign of falling away, in this, the centenary of the end of the Great War.

Sebastian Faulks’ celebrated novel Birdsong, published in 1993, arrived at the Wyvern this week in a stage adaptation by Rachel Wagstaff. Faulks’ novel is a powerful story of love and war, family and memory, set in various times and involving three generations – so to compound the question of recreating trench warfare on stage, how does a playwright adapt such a complex novel into an intelligible and satisfying two-hour performance?

At the heart of the novel is a love story – a passionate affair between young officer Stephen Wraysford (played by Tom Kay) and the unhappily married wife of a French businessman, Isabelle Azaire (Madeleine Knight). While this narrative of love found, and lost, holds the story together, Birdsong is also the story of Jack Firebrace, a working class sapper who left his job tunnelling for the London Underground to dig tunnels underneath the battlefield.

The stage set is a triumph. It operates on four levels, in terms of height – with the tunnel entrance, the stage, the trench top and a high balcony. The looming presence of broken stakes, barbed wire hangs over all the action as a constant threat, but with the addition of a chair and table, or bed, or the swinging of a door, the action is convincingly relocated into a village, or a middle class home, or a riverside picnic.

Wagstaff wisely simplifies the novel by removing the more contemporary narrative thread, but even so this is a play in which two timelines are closely interwoven. It is a credit to her thoughtful writing that parallel events or incidents often mark the switch from one time to another, without it ever being confusing.

The use of music and song is also notable. Whether this is a French folk tune, or a traditional hymn (the sound of Easter hymn There is a Green Hill Far Away eerily emphasizes the cross on horizon) or the mournful folk ballads sung by actor James Findlay, who comes from a family of folk singers, the music deepens the emotional resonance of the action without being heavy-handed. The scene before the men went ‘over the top’ in the Battle of the Somme was also cleverly staged.

Sound and light effects are also integral part of the play’s success – with the sometimes seat-jumpingly loud explosions counterpointed by the delicate sound of birdsong. Again, this is lightly done but effective.

While Kay has the smouldering looks perfect for romantic lead Wraysford and puts on a creditable performance, it is Tim Treloar as Firebrace who provides the play’s beating heart. His friendship with his comrades, humour, resilience and sensitivity are portrayed to perfection by Treloar, and the poignant moments of his story are very moving. All told, this is a terrific production and well worth seeing. - SARAH SINGLETON