This tour of the play based on Michael Morpurgo’s 2003 novel for older children has an awful timeliness about it, given the present war in Europe and its enduring images of destruction. Like his earlier story War Horse, which won global fame on the back of the National Theatre’s 2007 production, it focuses on the lives, and deaths, of individuals caught up in the war which was allegedly the one to end all others. This it does with a documentary focus that is both merciless and compassionate.
Here we have a young conscript by the name of Thomas Peaceful – Tommo to his friends – who finds himself in the unspeakable mud and carnage of the French trenches. As with the book, this location alternates with that of the rural life from which he has been plucked in an England which, for all its tensions, still had a tranquility worthy of his surname. Yet there were also the anxieties of adolescence; a love rivalry with his brother Charlie over a girl called Molly. Tommo’s grief when Charlie and she have a shotgun wedding is a painful reminder that all is in fact far from fair in love, just as it is in war.
There is of course an earlier precedent for First War stage drama in Joan Littlewood’s 1963 production of Oh What A Lovely War. Although that show famously recruited elements of Music Hall to lampoon the absurdities of industrialised murder, this adaptation of Morpurgo’s book by Simon Reade is not so far removed in its combined echoes of oral history and radical political theatre.
Just as military technology has made terrifying strides since those times, so too have the resources of live theatre. One result is that the explosions are so blinding and the tremors so earth-shaking that they surely scatter the birds from the trees on the green outside the theatre.
On the evening I went, there was a strong contingent of early teens and younger, all unflinchingly rapt by the world falling apart before their eyes. None looked remotely fazed, at least not until the moment when Charlie must face the firing squad for having disobeyed orders by remaining at his stricken brother’s side.
Director Elle While has conscripted a fine troop, with Daniel Boyd and Daniel Rainford outstanding as the brothers Charlie and Tommo. John Dougall and Emma Manton mentioned in dispatches for multi-tasking manoeuvres involving a total of seventeen characters. A properly challenging night in the theatre of operations. History snapping at our heels.
Review by Alan Franks
Simon Reade’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s classic story PRIVATE PEACEFUL comes to Richmond Theatre this June to coincide with Armed Forces Week – a week created to celebrate the people and work of the UK Armed Forces which culminates in Armed Forces Day on Saturday 25 June. Richmond Theatre has partnered with Richmond-based national charity The Poppy Factory who produce remembrance products and support veterans with health conditions on their journey into employment. Due to the close connection between the charity and the themes of PRIVATE PEACEFUL, there will be a charitable bucket collection for audiences at the end of the performance.
Brothers Tommo and Charlie Peaceful are played by Daniel Rainford and Daniel Boyd. Both brothers fall in love with Molly played by Liyah Summers (Henry VI Part 1 -RSC, Our Lady of Kibeho – Theatre Royal Stratford East)
The also features John Dougall as Father, Colonel and Chaplain, Robert Ewens as Big Joe, Tom Kanji as Munnings, Doctor and Grandma Wolf and Emma Manton as Miss McAllister. Other parts are played by members of the cast with Abigail Hood as understudy.
Adapted by Simon Reade
Directed by Elle While
Designed by Lucy Sierra
Lighting Design by Matt Haskins
Sound Design by Dan Balfour
Movement Director Neil Bettles
Composer Frank Moon
Fight Director Jonathan Holby
Voice and Dialect Coach Marianne Samuels
Casting Director Ginny Schiller CDG
Associate Director Imogen Beech
The Green, Richmond TW9 1QJ
Monday 20 – Saturday 25 June 2022