Michael Morpurgo is one of the UK’s most celebrated and prolific authors renowned especially for his children’s books such as ‘The Butterfly Lion’ and ‘The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips’, but perhaps most significantly for the wonderful ‘War Horse’.
‘War Horse’ is a brilliantly told story, poignant yet uplifting, set against the backdrop of the Great War. And such is ‘Private Peaceful’, this time featuring one family’s journey leading up to the First World War and events both joyous and tragic generated before and during those momentous years.
‘Private Peaceful’ won both the Blue Peter and the Red House Children’s Book Awards and apparently is Morpurgo’s personal favourite, inspired by a visit to a war museum in Flanders where he read a framed letter from an army captain to a soldier’s mother.
The story centres around two brothers initially living their carefree lives in the meadows of rural England before tragedy strikes, first with the shocking death of their father and then later being transported to Ypres and the horrors of trench warfare. There is a third brother: ’Big’ Joe (wonderfully played by Robert Ewens) is the eldest brother of Tommo (Daniel Rainford) and Charlie (Daniel Boyd), however Joe suffered with meningitis as a child never having to go to school, remaining at home with his mother (Emma Manton) who loves him dearly. In fact the three brothers are incredibly close, and fiercely loyal to one another. This is tested as the story unfolds.
Chichester’s fabulous thrust stage is eminently suited for this production, every part of it is used within a set which is quite simply amazing. It hardly alters except for a couple of additions and modifications between the first and second halves, and yet manages to fit exactly with the rural idyll of the family’s early lives to the later atrocities of that terrible war. The startling opening takes us to the summer of 1916 with Tommo awaiting a dawn attack, when he casts his mind back to his childhood summers as a farm boy in the country. We are then thrust into the boys’ insouciant childhood, poor but happy, with a mother bravely trying to make ends meet, during that last summer before the shadow of the Great War was fully upon them.
Simon Reade’s adaptation to stage is fast moving and all the characters play a multitude of roles. I found this a little confusing initially and I urge anyone not familiar with the story to read a synopsis and get to grips with the characters. The first half is almost entirely devoted to demonstrating the boys’ intense allegiance to one another, despite Tommo’s jealousy of his brother’s relationship with Molly (played with gusto by Liyah Summers). Tommo is also wracked with guilt and feelings of insecurity following the death of his father.
This play, an ensemble piece, beautifully enacted throughout, takes us through a gamut of emotions via the voice of Tommo at a crucial point in his life, and gives us a two-hour snapshot of one family during those horrific times, representational of so many other families. It also incorporates song and movement, the choreography (Movement Director Neil Bettles) and the music (Frank Moon) deliver two superb extra dimensions.
No sooner does the interval end than the audience is shockingly propelled into the cruelty, the courage, the blood and the gore of the trenches together with the penalties so many paid. The concluding moments are immensely powerful and moving.
Vitally important here are the sound and lighting effects, and Dan Balfour (sound) and Matt Haskins (lighting) are to be congratulated for delivering a massively tense, compelling atmosphere.
I left the theatre feeling I needed to see the play again to absorb the story even more, seeing it for the first time was extremely affecting, driving home – just as Mr Morpurgo intended – the utter futility of war, the appalling injustices sustained. Above all he demonstrates the need for its deglorification and to ensure it never happens again. Sombre thoughts at this time. However Private Peaceful is also an emotional story of love and hope, knitted together with moments of tragedy, and this performance delivers a perfect example of the Peaceful family’s experience of the hardships of the early 20th century and the devastation of the First World War.
Lest we forget…….
2 hours 20 minutes (including interval)
Reviewer: Gill Ranson