REVIEW: Private Peaceful
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Winchester Today’s David Cradduck gives his view on ‘Private Peaceful’ – performed by the Curious Pheasant Theatre at the University of Winchester
Three years ago I had the privilege of reviewing Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse at The Mayflower Southampton – and it seems that I wasn’t the only one who was in awe of his work. Young actor, director and professional theatre entertainer Becky Mills, along with theatre and events producer Daniel Harris also saw War Horse and both were inspired to eventually bring Morpurgo’s lesser known Private Peaceful to the stage.
Private Peaceful, or at least this version of it, was adapted for the stage by Simon Reade, and is a one-man show; a story originally written for children (as was War Horse) it provides us with a moving and brutally honest window onto the futility of war – any war – but especially what we now know as trench warfare as epitomised by the horrors of World War One.
Morpurgo wrote it after a visit to Ypres and being shocked by how many young men met a nasty end at the hands of their own countrymen.
The plot is a simple one – teenager Private Tommo Peaceful lives out his last night on earth before he is shot by firing squad for ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy’. He relives his short life and the journey that has led him to this ridiculous and pitiful conclusion: his early years at school with big brother Charlie and his first encounters with Molly, his childhood sweetheart; the growing up in warm Devonshire, and the guilt and hurt that he was somehow implicit in the tree felling accident that killed his father; the loves and hates of early teens; the realisation that Molly is to bear his brother’s child and therefore be Charlie’s wife, not Tommo’s.
How he ends up in Ypres in 1916 counting down the hours on his dead brother’s fob watch, summoning up chapter after chapter of his youth, his enlistment to join Charlie on the front line (by lying about his age) and the eventual rebellious act of refusing a suicidal mission to stay with his dying brother, is played out with the inevitability of the Titanic. You know how it will end but get drawn in nonetheless.
The staging for this debut production for Curious Pheasant Theatre is a moody performing arts studio, turned into a simple set comprising one old iron bed, a couple of chairs and loads of sandbags. As the audience arrives to take their seats, Tommo is already lying on his bed, muttering to himself, picked out by one spotlight. There is a tangible atmosphere of smoke and tension before the play even starts.
Adam Lay as Tommo trained at the National Youth Theatre and is in his second year at Winchester studying for a BA in Musical Theatre. He is the lynch pin to the whole one-act performance which plays for just over the hour. He is never off stage, is word perfect (and there are a lot of words) and plays the range of emotions with total confidence and professionalism. A lot of hard work has obviously gone into his characterisation of Tommo and the result is an awfully believable innocent young victim of a futile war.
Supporting actors William Jones and Becky Mills (who also directed) help tell the story in a series of well choreographed flashbacks. Although in reality a one hander, Private Peaceful needs these two real characters to provide human interaction.
With the support of other, recorded voices (for example school teacher, drill sergeant, the Brigadier who hands down the death sentence), sound effects and some cleverly projected part-animated illustrations, the illusion is complete.
You are there, in the mud and hopelessness with Tommo during those last few hours when he and we wish that his dead brother’s fob watch will stop ticking and prevent the inevitable ending at dawn.
Being a stickler for detail and being that close to the action, I found the rather toy-like rifles and sandbags that were obviously filled with nothing heavier than paper slightly offputting; again being ultra critical some of the recorded voices were a little ‘boomy’, and the gun- and shellfire occasionally stopped dead rather than fading out.
I would have liked to see more contrast between the present and the flashback scenes, perhaps in the form of different style of lighting, and the smoke machine was at times a little too effective!
But these small points are insignificant when the play is taken as a whole. The cast and crew worked well as a tight team to provide a professional and extremely moving piece of theatre that director Becky Mills says Curious Pheasant Theatre would like to do more of in the future.
Morpurgo’s brilliant concept and ability to open our eyes and hearts to such important events is a winner, making Private Peaceful every bit as powerful as War Horse in that regard.
Curious Pheasant should be very proud of their achievement and I look forward to seeing more of their work in the future. It is theatre with a difference and hugely entertaining – although my parting shot (no pun intended) would be that the addition of a printed programme might help future audiences understand and appreciate the background to the production they are seeing.
Great stuff, Curious Pheasant Theatre – I wish you well.