Private Peaceful, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Tuesday, February 15 and Wednesday, February 16
WHEN the then Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo wrote the novel Private Peaceful in 2003, he highlighted the plight of the 306 British soldiers shot in the First World War by their own side for desertion or cowardice, dismissed as “worthless men” rather than being treated as the victims of shellshock which many of them were. In 2006 the Government finally granted pardons to these men, but the story still resonates, both in the novel and this one-man play, devised shortly after the book’s publication.
The horrors Great War are seen through the eyes of Tommo Peaceful, an under-age soldier who enlists with his beloved brother Charlie, and whose experiences in the trenches contrast sharply with their Devonshire childhood, where a plane spotted in the sky rises over rooftops instead of plunging to the ground, and figures of authority are to be laughed about rather than feared. Even the death of their father in a forestry accident and the respects paid by his employer is bathed in a warmer light when compared with the devastation of No Man’s Land, where bodies lie unburied, tangled in barbed wire.
Recent RADA graduate Mark Quartley took Tommo through early childhood and first love and then to the trenches of “Wipers”, his innocent disappearing as the fields turn to mud, but his devotion to his family staying strong through to the big push where brotherly love and battlefield experience clash with blind obedience. The play ended with a left-turn from the novel, which I shall not explain for fear of revealing either, clearly rewritten to better suit the one-man performance, but also making for better dramatic impact on the many school groups present who were probably bracing themselves for an ending they thought they knew to expect after reading the book.
While Morpurgo’s other Great War tale, War Horse, continuing to thunder in the West End, with a Broadway run and Spielberg film in production, Private Peaceful demonstrates that even stripped back to one actor and a few sound and lighting effects, the tragedy of war as seen through the eyes of a boy not much older than most of those in the audience can still resonate through words with young people today.
- First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, February 24