Adaptor: Simon Reade after Michael Morpurgo
Director: Elle While
First produced in 2004 as a one-man show, Simon Reade’s new adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s First World War novel now has a larger cast and is more faithful to the original. But this touring version currently at Richmond feels a little tired, and perhaps will always be stuck in the shadows of the National Theatre’s seminal adaptation of Morpurgo’s War Horse in 2007. With stock characters, Private Peaceful follows the lives of two brothers growing up in the countryside before they sign up for battle, but, apart from one aspect, it’s a story we have seen before.
It begins at the end, however, with Tommo Peaceful counting down the minutes to some dreadful incident that is about to happen. But before we are given more details we are whisked back in time to the fairly uneventful childhoods of Tommo and his brother, Charlie. For most of the first half, the seven actors in the cast have to pretend they are children, running around the stage stomping and singing. Tommo and Charlie’s father dies, Charlie gets a job at the big house, and they both fall in love with the same girl. Events move quickly, but there are few surprises.
Because we don’t know what is about to happen in 1916 – or perhaps we do, but it’s fairly unclear – their idyllic boyhoods are not layered in any kind of jeopardy, and so there’s no pain undercutting this rather sentimental view of rural life. And it takes up the entirety of the first act. After the interval, the action now takes places in the trenches of Belgium and France, but the sentimentality endures. We see little of the horrors of war, and the crucial scene, which explains the earlier signalled event, is underplayed and undramatic.
Lucy Sierra’s stage design, which apart from two piles of sand bags in the second half, makes do for both the wilds of Devon and the bombed out landscape of the Somme. Ramps allow the actors to move around the stage in interesting directions, but the design doesn’t capture the claustrophobia of the trenches. Only the dry ice representing a gas attack gives some indication of the terrors that the soldiers faced.
As Charlie, the older brother, Daniel Boyd is solid, and you can just about believe that he is a boy on the cusp of adulthood. Daniel Rainford plays Tommo, and while he is good in the group scenes, eternally playing innocent, he struggles to hold the stage when he has to give his short monologues that hint at the play’s ominous end. The rest of the cast works hard, playing a multitude of roles though, at times, John Dougall does seem in a hurry to get the play over quickly.
Presumably, this adaptation of Private Peaceful is aimed at children, but despite the broad strokes and the criticisms of how the Army enforced discipline, there’s little emotion here, and it makes for very passive viewing. This is no War Horse.
Runs until 25 June 2022 and then continues to tour