Sarah Jayne Dunn in tune with Sebastian Faulk's Birdsong at Theatre Royal Plymouth
IT'S hard to imagine a greater contrast between the frantic brashness of youth soap Hollyoaks and the intimacy and private emotions of Birdsong.
The screaming and door-slamming of the Channel 4 series and the unvoiced, aching loss felt in Sebastian Faulk's World War One story are linked by Sarah Jayne Dunn.
She spent 11 years on screen as would-be northern supermodel Mandy. Now the soap histrionics are on hold as she plays Isabelle, a reserved Frenchwoman who seeks liberation from a stifling marriage, in the stage adaptation of the acclaimed novel.
The steps between the two in Sarah's career have been taken via a series of theatre comedies.
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"It's the most serious stage play I have done and a big challenge," says Sarah, who has tours of Boeing, Boeing and When Harry Met Sally on her theatre CV.
"The subject in Birdsong is very delicate."
The challenge could be said to work both ways. Audiences are presented with another soap star, Charlie G Hawkins (Darren Miller in EastEnders), who is making his stage debut, and Arthur Bostrom, a man previously best known for his ludicrous French accent in 'Allo 'Allo!, plays Isabelle's husband.
The lead role of Stephen, the young Englishman with whom Isabelle has an affair, is played by newcomer Jonathan Smith.
That could be seen as clever casting: with more mature audiences familiar with the book and the BBC adaptation last year, something bold was needed to add fresh, young appeal.
Sarah has noticed a youthful influx at many venues on the tour, which calls at the Theatre Royal Plymouth next week.
"It is exciting for them to see him on stage," says Sarah, 31.
"The reaction we are getting from audiences has been excellent. We've had some great reviews and some wonderful comments."
Her own reaction on joining the cast was to pay catch up, with the story and the background.
"I'd not read the book before the audition. I hadn't seen the BBC series and I still haven't. I have the DVDs to watch when the tour is over.
"The director asked us not to. The stage production is totally different and he wanted us to find the characters ourselves.
"A World War One historian worked with us and talked about the weapons and the injuries.
"We went over to France to see the trenches and the memorials."
The shifting time periods of Birdsong and the contrasts between an idyllic French country house and the horrors of trench warfare present further challenges.
The stage version, as with the BBC adaptation, ignores the third time period of the book, omitting the 1970s strand of the story involving Stephen's granddaughter, while much of the impact of the war is left to the minds of the viewers. "We have to trust that the audience have the imagination," says Sarah.
That leaves the themes of love and sacrifice as elements that reach across the decades.
The tragic circumstances of Isabelle are a different matter. Society has moved on. Today the options open to a woman in an abusive marriage are quite different.
The Hollyoaks generation young woman within Sarah has to bite her lip.
"I find myself saying, 'if that were me...'."
Birdsong is at the Theatre Royal Plymouth from Monday to Saturday next week and the Hall For Cornwall, Truro, May 7-11