ADAPTING a well-respected and much-loved novel for the stage is never going to be an easy task.

And audiences in Salisbury have been waiting with no little anticipation to see Rachel Wagstaff’s stage version of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – as was demonstrated by the near capacity crowd on the opening night.

They were taken on a journey that was as harrowing as it was effective.

The experiences of central character Stephen Wraysford (George Banks) as an officer in the trenches of the First World War are interspersed with memories of his love affair with Isabelle Azaire (Carolin Stoltz), an older married woman, six years earlier.

The juxtaposition of the two time frames adds a deep well of poignancy to this drama, as the immature young man in the throes of first love is put into direct contrast with the despair, disillusion and suffering wrought on him by the war.

As Wraysford desperately clings to the dream of the love he lost as the world around him falls into madness, sapper Jack Firebrace (Peter Duncan) is in his own version of hell. Unable to secure leave after receiving a letter telling him his only son is seriously ill, he has no choice but stay put, not knowing if his boy is dead or alive.

Both Banks and Duncan bring their characters to life with an incredible vibrancy that demands your attention throughout.

The supporting cast is equally impressive, with Samuel Martin standing out in the role of Evans – his beautiful singing voice and accomplished violin playing being used to great effect.

There were a few moments when the horrors of war and its impact on humanity, and humanity’s view of itself, were laid on perhaps a little thicker than they needed to be.

But where this work excels is in its exploration of war through individual experience, and also in the touches that direct the audience to consider other aspects to the conflict, from fear, suicide, loneliness and homesickness to camaraderie, bravery and freedom.

The impact of this impressive work is perhaps best explained by the stunned pause before the clapping began at the end of the first half.