Private Peaceful review by Virginia Proud
Private ‘Tommo’ Peaceful does not want to spend his final night on Earth sleeping, he intends to remember; to relive the moments of his brief life.
Adapted by Simon Reade from Michael Morpurgo’s young adult novel, Private Peaceful is a young soldier on the front line in the trenches of World War I, now sentenced to death by court-martial. Morpurgo has revisited the horror and futility of war that we encountered in War Horse, this time throwing a human innocent in its path. Tommo may not be innocent in the eyes of the war hierarchy but an innocent he surely is.
Despite the dark heart of this play, under the direction of Terence O’Connell, actor Anthony Craig gives a performance that is simply a joy to watch, using voice and physicality to full effect. Our first glimpse of his face is harshly lit, all shadows and pain. Then, in childlike tones, his demeanour bug eyed and gawkish, we are transported back to Tommo’s loving but humble upbringing in the West Country. Craig is superb, playing not just Tommo but the array of characters that have shaped his life, leading finally and inevitably to the resolute young man facing his sentence.
It is a cruel joke on the audience that the first half of this play is so light filled and joyful, even as it careens toward the horror of trench warfare. When it arrives, there’s no pulling of the punch. This retelling comes complete with fear, filth, stench, and despair, but such is Tommo’s charm and naivete, that we stick with him.
The script is a touch literary in places, with some descriptions more prose-like than speech, but it is a wonderfully written piece. It is not an entirely faithful adaptation of the novel however and a key plot point is changed which sharpens the dramatic focus but puts the piece on a trajectory towards hopelessness. There’s no fight in it, and Tommo is resigned to the fact that he never stood a chance.
A one-man show is always a challenge and not just for the actor. Despite what I consider to be a superb performance overall, there is something still to be considered in the pacing and modulation of delivery, especially with the rhythmic West Country accent. I would also have appreciated a few beats between scenes and key moments, most notably toward the end of piece as the tale darkened. The very final moment after Tommo’s exit seemed sadly rushed.
The production design is excellent. Craig bounces all over the sparse set, making full use of the space, multi-tasking props; bed becomes barricade, chair becomes pulpit, pillow a pregnancy. The technical design, particularly during the battle scenes delivers essential impact, including thankfully, a necessary sense of the volume that the soldiers endured. The unfortunate trade-off is that in several sections of Craig’s dialogue were lost, but timing could potentially remedy the issue.
Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful was a real soldier, and this piece is a tribute to all the young soldiers, over three hundred of them, executed by British command for offences from cowardice, desertion, to falling asleep at their post. One hundred years since the first great war, these stories endure and are relevant today, as we continue to wonder at the goodness and evil in humanity and the crimes we commit against each other.
Private Peaceful is at Chapel Off Chapel for a very short run until 8 September, with plans for a major tour. I would recommend getting your skates on and catch this one.