Private Peaceful – Richmond Theatre, London

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews.

Writer: Michael Morpurgo (adapted by Simon Reade)

Director: Simon Reade

Reviewer: Alice McGuigan

Rating: 3

Photo: Pau Ross
Photo: Pau Ross

The silhouette of a soldier crosses the dim-lit stage of no-man’s land. Arriving at a thin, wiry bed, he strips off his uniform to reveal a young boy in braces, sounding a cheerful West Country accent.

Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, Private Peaceful is a one-man show, delivered from the naive perspective of Tommo. It tells his stories growing up in Devon with older brother, Charlie, the love of his life, Molly, and the friendship that they share: “The stones say we’ll always be together. The three of us.” But, when Tommy follows Charlie into the army, fighting in the First World War, these hopes are thwarted. Contrasting the warmth of home with a harrowing battlefield, the play is tribute to those who suffered war crime punishments. It reminds us of the unjust nature of war, which Morpurgo passionately sought to communicate in the original story.

Andy Daniel’s performance of Tommo is highly dynamic. His physical, bounding energy and clear vocal projection engages the audience thoroughly with the young, enthusiastic lad he represents. He is careful to preserve the childlike elements of Tommo’s character into the second Act; an innocence which crucially separates him from the brutality of the battlefield. His transformation into Private Thomas Peaceful, singing ‘Oranges and Lemons’, is particularly tender. However, there is room for more moments like this. The story of his dad’s death and the description of seeing his dead comrades is hurried, therefore lacking the tragic impact Daniel is capable of evoking. Overall, he could afford to slow down the pace a little.

Daniel’s Devonshire accent is accurate and consistent, but not always easy to distinguish against the other accents he is challenged by in performing multiple roles. Yet, when the contrast is achieved, as with the switch between Tommy and the recruiting Sergeant Major, it is smooth, satisfying and sharp.

The design elements come together in Act two. The backdrop of no-man’s land, (a blue-grey sky and a strip of brown earth), lights up with flickering bomb explosions. Up until now, Wayne Dowdeswell’s lighting has simply helped narrate the passage of time. But as the set changes into a battlefield, flares and moonlight flash against the stark stage. The bed that represented home in Act One is roughly turned on its side, becoming the barbed wire barrier between the trenches and no-man’s land.

For those familiar with the book, Simon Reade’s ending might come as a shock. But it is one which only enhances the horror of events further. Encapsulated by the words of an old woman, the pressures of war echo up until the last, consequential and deathly gong: “Yee ain’t a coward are yee?”

Runs until 5th April (then continues on tour)



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