For King and country

Private Peaceful

Birmingham Rep

****

Having read the Michael Morpurgo novel on which this play is based I was intrigued to see how a stage version would handle the story.

The reason being, and I need to be careful here not to give things away, there is a real twist in the book which I could not envisage working when the show is visual.

I have to hand it to Simon Reade, who adapted and directed this production, because he succeeds by making the bold decision to completely ignore the twist. Instead he makes a huge change in the plot.

While people who know and love the book may feel a bit cheated by this it has to be said that it does actually work. And if you don’t know the original story, you would have no idea you had been robbed of it.

What you have instead is the last night in the life of Private Tommo Peaceful, a soldier at the Front in World War One. Knowing he is to face death by firing squad the next morning he spends his last hours looking back over his life and recounting his history.

Andy Daniel, as Peaceful, has a task ahead of him managing this monologue but he rises to the challenge wonderfully. Starting at his early memories he takes us through a life which is simple but not touched by hardship.

Private Peaceful, played by Andy Daniel, waves farewell to arms . . . and everything else

 

We hear of his adventures in the school playground, of seeing his father die in a forestry accident, of his love for childhood sweetheart Molly. We also hear of his profound love and loyalty to his family particularly his brother Charlie who has always protected him – and is now beside him in the War in Belgium.

The tale takes us to the day Tommo and Charlie sign up, catching the national enthusiasm for glory at the Front – and then the despair he feels when faced with the reality of the trenches.

The production doesn’t pull any punches. It may be aimed at young people but Tommo describes the horror of a gas attack in detail and takes us through the moral quandaries of facing an enemy who is no more an actual enemy than any other person he might meet in his normal life. As he calmly tells us, before going over to Flanders he has never even met a German. And now here is he facing down the barrel of a German gun.

Heartbreakingly tragic, it is Tommo’s simplicity which makes this story so poignant. He is the ‘everyman’ carried away on a way of enthusiasm who then discovers he is in a nightmare from which there is no escape.

The production makes effective use of lighting and a handful of props to move Tommo from his farm back home to the battlescarred fields of Flanders. It may be a one-man show but it is extremely effective at evoking that horror.

Ultimately the sense of hopelessness, loss and waste of life ticks as clearly as the watch which Tommo checks so frequently as he counts down his last hours.

As 6am comes and the moment arrives, this man standing at the front of the stage all alone signifies not just the hundreds who were ‘shot at dawn’ by their own sides but also the many thousands more who died in the conflict.

With the commemorations for the First World War likely to be at the forefronts of our minds over the next four years, it is a timely piece of theatre. To 17-05-14.

Diane Parkes

15-05-14

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