Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful demobilizes at West Yorkshire Playhouse this season as part of a national tour which completes in November.
It is 1914 and Tommo Peaceful, a Devonshire teenager, follows his elder brother into the trenches of The Great War. Following severe shellshock, the young soldier finds himself accused of desertion, a charge which often results in the death sentence. An evocation of childhood and a testament to the horrors of conflict, Private Peaceful is a play set to resonate with audiences of all ages.
2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. As such Simon Reade’s adaptation of Private Peaceful is an opportune lesson in history. Reade structures the play into two distinct acts, the first following Tommo’s childhood and the second marking the watershed moment he follows his brother into the armed forces. Generally the latter half of the play is the most effective, as Tommo’s internal dialogue intimately reflects the horrors of trench warfare. It is the first act, however, with its touching domesticity, which palpably offsets the second; allowing an audience to empathise with the drastic, inconceivable suffering which is to follow. Structured with pace and an honest economy of language, Reade’s adaptation is accessible whilst richly vivid and succeeds in humanising recent history.
Andy Daniel shoulders the play as Tommo in a performance which is highly charged with the vibrancy of youth. Utterly convincing as a countrified 16 year old, Daniel is flighty and charmingly imploring; younger audiences will strongly associate with the anxieties in the performance, bringing the dislocation of a historical character into close focus. Daniel’s skill in bringing other voices into the drama is also commendable and provides much levity and satirical absurdity to the piece.
Particularly inspiring is Private Peaceful’s minimal staging, with a brass bedstead doubling up as a barbed-wired trench. A moody, cloud-laden cyclorama foreshadows the storm ahead for Tommo, whilst simple sound effects and spot lighting transport the character to far flung locations as diverse and train stations and open fields. Exemplary in what can be achieved with so little, the production is brimming full of texture for the mind’s eye.
An evocation of childhood, Private Peaceful is a bold performance which embodies fear and realises bravery with direct intensity. Minimalistic, raw and beautifully written, it is pure theatre with an adolescent voice that carries a message all will comprehend. However, like war itself, don’t necessarily expect a simple nor cheerful conclusion.