A matter of life and death

picture of Paul Chequer as Private Peaceful

Private Peaceful

Malvern Festival Theatre

****

WHEN popular children’s author Michael Morpurgo visited the battlefields of the First World War in northern France, he was profoundly disturbed at the number of British soldiers who were executed during that conflict for cowardice, desertion or for sometimes trivial neglect of duty such as falling asleep while on duty.

The military in no way recognised the impact of shell shock on the troops in those days; a summary court martial was conducted and then the victim was shot by firing squad.

This prompted Morpurgo to write ‘Private Peaceful’, the story of a simple Cornish peasant boy, who signed up with his older brother to fight for his country.

The story begins with his first day at school, describes his home life in the village watched over by his older brother Charlie and their friend Molly. The vicissitudes of his life include the accidental loss of his father. The plot follows their story up to the day they enlist and are then trained and transported to Flanders’ fields to fight the Germans.

This stage adaptation adjusts the end of the story, but presents us with the travesty of a young man, who distinguishes himself in standing by his brother and fellow soldier in defiance of a reckless order to attack, paying the ultimate penalty.

This stage adaptation of Morpurgo’s childrens’ novel is less a dramatisation and more of a dramatised rendering of Morpurgo’s story. The solo performer, who acts the part of Tommo Peaceful, recounts his experiences for the most part very faithfully in the way that the ‘writer’ does in the novel.

He describes the experience of starting school very much from the perspective of the 5 year old, we see the various events through the eyes of the growing and simple country boy.

There are two alternating performers and on Thursday Paul Chequer gave an energetic and splendid portrayal of Tommo Peaceful. Supported by the use of excellent sound effects, especially during the war phase of the story, with shells, flares, gunfire and the like creating an evocative atmosphere, the terror of his experience at the front was very powerfully conveyed.

Lighting was similarly used to good effect; in other respects the set was minimal – a background scene of a bleak countryside depicted on the cyclorama with Tommo’s bed the only furniture, which was cleverly transformed in the war scenes into a barbed wire barricade.

Chequer’s performance was brilliant as he recalled the story of Tommo’s life from its closing moments; as he recalls the various scenes of his life he switches between his own voice and that of others with appropriate changes of accent. His use of mime and the physical depiction of character and incident were excellent. The end too was powerful and chilling.

The portrayal of Charlie particularly as a Christ-like figure laying down his life for his fellow soldiers was poignant. The whole production was in the final analysis quite lengthy for a single performer to sustain, and the final result more a brilliantly dramatized narrative than a play. To 19-04-14.

Tim Crow

17/04/14

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