Private Peaceful

Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Simon Reade
Scamp Theatre
The Corn Exchange, Newbury, and touring
(2011)

Private Peaceful production photo

Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful was written following his visit to a war cemetery outside Ypres.

Morpurgo found a grave for a Private Peaceful, one of the 300 young men who were executed for cowardice during the horrendous horrors of the First World War.

Most of these young soldiers had either got lost or separated from their regiments or fell asleep at their posts and were suffering from shell shock. Their death by firing squad was designed to set an example to the troops.

Morpurgo was determined to "set the record straight". It was only in 2006 that the British Government finally granted posthumous pardons to those shot at dawn for cowardice.

The play starts with Private 'Tommo" Peaceful curled up on an old iron bedstead. He has been condemned to death and is waiting to face the firing squad in the morning. He has been given a pocket watch from his older brother Charlie who has been killed in the trenches. It's this watch that "slowly slides away the minutes" until the dawn and his death.

Mark Quartley is a remarkable and outstanding young actor who has recently graduated from RADA. For 80 enthralling and captivating minutes he relates the short history of Peaceful from his childhood in a village in Devon, growing up with his older brother, to ending up on the Western Front.

His journey is filled with adventures that mesmerises and rivets the audience as Quartley plays the myriad of characters that have influenced Tommo's life. All performed with a consummate attention to detail. A remarkable performance.

We meet his schoolteachers, his 'orrible, bullying sergeant major, a German soldier who saves his life and even Molly his sweetheart.

The ticking of the clock counterpoints each episode in his life as the long evening slowly turns to dawn.

Reade's lucid adaption moves the action effortlessly between the trenches and his home. There was a poignant comparison between Tommo's childhood adventures walking through a stream feeling the mud through his toes and the glutinous mud of the trenches sucking you down to a gruesome harrowing death.

Bill Talbot's simple set design inventively uses the bed to become a trench with barbed wire. Dramatically lit by Wayne Dowdeswell and with an emotive soundscape (Jason Barnes) the production whizzes along at an incredible pace.

Directed with great conviction and verve by Simon Reade this was a play that will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on the capacity audience, particularly the many young people in the theatre. Unmissable!

Reviewer: Robin Strapp