Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Simon Reade
Jonathan Church Theatre Productions / Nottingham Playhouse
Theatre Royal Bath
As a child, I read Michael Morpurgo’s books with a hunger that no other author could serve up. From The Butterfly Lion and Kensuke’s Kingdom to Billy the Kid and War Horse, I became so infatuated with his written words that I chose to write to the man himself. I still have the postcard he wrote back—I went into school the next day and showed it off (he was the Children’s Laureate at the time). It wasn’t until I was 12 that I read Private Peaceful—only a few years shy of the book’s protagonist Tommo Peaceful. It was the quickest I ever got through a book and it sparked an interest in what we know as the Great War.
Morpurgo’s “most beloved” book was originally adapted by Simon Reade in 2004, initially as a one-hander at Bristol Old Vic, and follows a pair of close brothers from Devon, Tommo and Charlie Peaceful. They share every moment, including the love for a girl in the village, as they go from boys to men as World War One looms.
In the experienced hands of Elle White’s astute direction, Private Peaceful is as sweet and delicate as it is profound and impactful, just like the book. Daniel Rainford nails both the boyish charms and terrifying devastation as Tommo. A short life already lived of traumatic events, this is palpable in Rainford’s trench-shaking movement and war-affected tone of voice—it is a commanding performance.
An efficient and effective set design by Lucy Sierra of an inescapable trench works well in a story which covers a vast number of geographical areas. This is accompanied by some excellent lighting work—which really comes into its own when Tommo and co are at war in France. A nod to the book cover can be felt in the backdrop—something pierced into my mind from childhood. Like in the source material, war songs are performed poignantly by the soldiers, adding to the juxtaposition we’re presented between childhood and adulthood. The ensemble of seven are constantly at work and hit the mark each time.
It’s easy to forget about the horror that occurred more than a century ago, but the production brings the right level of discomfort—especially with a family demographic targeted here. With the distressing events currently occupying the world’s news in Ukraine, it is a timely reminder for all ages of the terror that war brings.
Reviewer: Jacob Newbury