CentralDramaFamilyReview

Private Peaceful – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: Michael Morpurgo

Adapter: Simon Reade

Director: Elle While

Private Peaceful, the 2003 book for older children by Michael Morpurgo, could equally be called Privates Peaceful as it follows the lives of two brothers, Charlie and Tommo Peaceful as they grow up in pre World War I rural England and subsequently join up to fight in the trenches.

On entering the theatre, one is struck by the harsh, monochromatic lighting and set from designers Matt Haskins and Lucy Sierra respectively. This is used to especially good effect in Tommo’s opening monologue: it’s night in the trenches and it’s clear that something awful is going to happen. Tommo is determined that he will not sleep; no, he will spend the night remembering every detail of his life to now. And so the sombre set is transformed through lighting to transport us to his childhood home and haunts before, in Act II, we return to the reality of trench warfare.

We meet a number of important characters in Tommo’s life. And it isn’t long before tragedy strikes when his father, a forester on the estate, dies in a tragic accident for which Tommo erroneously feels responsible. This upends the family’s lives as their mother desperately tries to put food on the table for them. We also meet the Colonel, the selfish local landowner on whom they rely for their living. But all the time as Tommo grows up, two things are constant: the protective hand of his elder brother Charlie and both boys’ growing love for Molly.

When war breaks out and Charlie volunteers, then, it’s unsurprising that Tommo insists on lying about his age in order to join up too. And after the interval, we see through Tommo’s eyes the futility of much of the fighting in World War I, together with the arrogance and incompetence of the officers, always promising that one more push will be the turning point.

At the press performance, Daniel Boyd was indisposed and so Charlie Peaceful was played by Tom Kanji. This is a small ensemble cast with all, except the Peaceful brothers, taking multiple roles, and this substitution necessitated the remaining cast members taking on even more roles, with more frequent costume changes to make it happen. Nevertheless, they rose to the occasion, and the casual observer would be quite unaware that they were a man down.

At the centre is Daniel Rainford’s Tommo. Rainford shows us Tommo at all ages – his uncertainty about starting school, his upset at his father’s death and his growing love for Molly. While Tommo is living in the shadow of his brother, Rainford imbues him with all the uncertainties of a boy growing up and ultimately being swayed to go to war. In his monologues as the night wears on towards its inevitable ending, he grows in stature as he recounts his story. Supporting him, Kanji’s Charlie is a brighter and more happy-go-lucky character. Nevertheless, Kanji brings out Charlie’s love for his brother that guides his every action. Liyah Summers brings us Molly as well as a range of minor characters. The show is punctuated by folk music and Summers has a superb sweet voice, emphasising the poignancy of Molly’s life. She too shows us Molly’s growing maturity alongside the boys.

John Dougall is hard-working, playing many of the adult roles, so we see him as the caring father, the uncaring colonel and the bullying sergeant amongst others. He moves from character to character with ease so that one is never in doubt as to who is speaking. Emma Manton is central to the boys’ early lives as their mother, run ragged as she tries her best for the boys. Robert Ewens brings us several characters, chief among them being the Peaceful boys’ older brother Big Joe. Big Joe suffered meningitis as a baby and as a result, has brain damage: Ewens sympathetically portrays this, never straying into caricature.

This is a powerful story set at a cruel point in history. It’s told accessibly – the school party at this performance was entranced – and doesn’t shy away from the brutality of war, though it’s maybe not as graphic and hardhitting as some portrayals, at least until the dénouement. A fine story, well told, Private Peaceful is well worth making the effort to see on tour.

Runs Until 21 May 2022 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

Poignant

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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