Private Peaceful – Barn Theatre

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Michael Morpurgo (adapted by Simon Reade)

Director: Alexander Knott

Amidst the wider devastation of the First World War, there are the personal tragedies, the stories of families and friends who enlisted together and never returned to the towns and villages they called home. Michael Morpurgo’s story Private Peaceful tells the story of two brothers transported from the meadows of England to the battlefields of France. Adapted for the stage by Simon Reade, this new version by the Barn Theatre has been filmed especially for digital release.

Soldier Tommo spends a wakeful night counting the hours until a 6am attack in June 1916 and while the minutes tick by he casts his mind back to a childhood in rural England as a farm boy where he became devoted to his elder brother Charlie. As school and play gives way to first love, underage enlistment and service in France the brothers vow to stay together until the end.

Morpurgo’s story gives a human face to the countless names we see on the war memorials, all those hopeful young men who left behind jobs, families, friends and plans to answer the call to war. The character of Tommo Peaceful brilliantly represents them and Reade’s adaptation captures well the ordinary existence of a farming family working the land and trying to make ends meet.

There is a (perhaps) clichéd sense of that last great summer before the world changed forever, but Reade allows the shadow of war to slowly fall over what seems to the young Tommo as a rural paradise. The early death of their father, the landlord Colonel, a game in the mud, the lost pilot who asks for directions and the eventual arrival of the excitement-laden Recruiting Officer all bring with them a quiet foreboding, a hint of what is to come as the military life increasingly intrudes on Tommo and Charlie’s experiences.

The storytelling is fast paced and after 30-minutes the Peaceful brothers are in training before heading to Belgium and the grim realities of Ypres. Lighting designer Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner works in harmony with sound designer Harry Smith to create the rapidly changing locations that flow effortlessly within director Alexander Knott’s production, while the changes of mood are expertly managed as Tommo lives his life chronologically while also reflecting back on it at a crucial moment.

A UK tour may have been interrupted by the pandemic last year, but Knott working with director of photography Alex Tabrizi have successfully reconfigured the stage production for digital presentation, bringing the audience into the story with shot and editing techniques. Reflecting the emotional changes, pace and moments of tension within the story, quick cuts, low shots, rotating views from above, full stage and close-up angles are used to hone in on Tommo’s first-person narrative while still implying the wider experience of a conflict happening on many Fronts.

Emily Costello is excellent as Tommo reflecting the changing age of her character with modulations to voice and manner to show the excited child as well as the reflective young man maturely considering the end of his life, which becomes very meaningful for the viewer. James Demaine creates an array of other characters including Charlie while also providing much of the musical accompaniment on several instruments that adds considerably to the atmosphere of Private Peaceful.

After War Horse, Morpurgo’s ability to capture the breadth and meaning of the war experience for a younger audience is replicated here and Reade’s adaptation gives a rich flavour of the First World War, from the horrifying conditions of trench warfare to the comradely fun of Estaminets, from letter writing and reconnaissance aeroplanes to Rest Camps, hospitals, gas attacks and soldiers’ songs. Tragedy tinged with hope, this story of brotherly affection foregrounds the family stories that give this most mechanised of wars its human face.

Runs here until 2 May 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Richly flavoured

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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