An Innocent Abroad
If Michael Morpurgo’s “War Horse” was a cinematic and theatrical blockbuster, his later work also dealing with the horrors of World War I, “Private Peaceful,” now directed and adapted for the stage by Simon Reade, is a little more understated. In both cases, Morpurgo’s war stories, aimed at his children and young adult audience, cover many of the same themes. But where “War Horse” appealed to both young and old, “Private Peaceful’s” tale of a sixteen-year-old caught up in the horrors of war seems to pull its punches a little more in favour of its mid teen audience. Ideal for children over eight and teenagers, “Private Peaceful” risks being a less interesting proposition for those who like their punches to pack a little more power. Yet “Private Peaceful’s” tale of brothers in arms to the bitter end still retains a sucker punch sting in its tail, and more than compensates for a lack of grit with some old, English countryside charm and generous lashings of nostalgia.
In Simon Reade’s adaptation, it takes some time before Private Peaceful finally arrives, though he does pop in for frequent, brief visits to check his watch, counting down the diminishing seconds towards an unspecified event. Instead we meet Tommo Peaceful, an innocent abroad, bordering on country bumpkin, following him from childhood through to his mid teens, encountering all the usual experiences; first days at school, first love and first fight. Inseparable from his big brother, Charlie, they go larking about in the sun as skylarks sing in the country sky. Meanwhile the Germans are preparing for war and every man must do his duty, even those not old enough to be considered men. On the fields of Flanders Private Peaceful finally arrives to attack bunkers, clear rat’s nests, sludge through mud and mustard gas, and suffer at the hands of incompetent commanders. When orders become insanity, loyalty a betrayal, and common sense is deemed cowardice, the insanity of war shows its cruel face with innocence, family and freedom, the very attributes war claims to be protecting, becoming its first casualties.
With its long, lingering set up taking place in pre-war years, “Private Peaceful” is a story of two halves, feeling early on like an episode of “The Waltons,” or “Little House on the Prairie,” with its sunny, boyhood days and sanitised, almost Disney like anguish, where suffering and death seem but momentary interruptions. When the war finally arrives, things get a little darker, but there’s still something of the Boys Own, war comic heroics to the tale to position it safe enough for its younger audience. Not until near the end does the sting in the tail kick in, elevating “Private Peaceful” into something you can really get your teeth into. But if it takes its time to get there, it's a journey worth the taking, if for no other reason than Shane O’Regan’s extraordinary one man performance.
Under Reade’s direction, Shane O’Regan delivers a simply superb performance, wonderfully restrained, channelling the proverbial cast of thousands. Well, twenty-four to be precise. Shifting, vocally and physically, between each with consummate ease, transitions are so seamless you cannot see the joins. Anshuman Bhatia’s strong, yet subtle, lighting design differentiates between Tommo’s days of darkness and light, with Jason Barnes's sound design bringing added depth, especially during the war scenes. Both designers understand Regan’s performance is the thing, and along with a stripped back set, play supporting roles without overwhelming the central performance, making the whole richer as a result.
While “Private Peaceful” may not have enough edge for those who like more grit and less nostalgia in their war stories, it has certainly something it needs to say about war that needs to be heard. Not that themes or issues grant dramatic engagement to a production, no matter how lofty their aims, or excuse the lack thereof. Yet that is most certainly not the case here. Though it may be pitched at a young adult audience, or even a very much older one, there’s still enough here for the average adult to enjoy. With its dramatic, thematic and theatrical integrity, “Private Peaceful” delivers a delightfully engaging production, one built around an astoundingly wonderful solo performance.
“Private Peaceful” by Michael Morpurgo, adapted and directed by Simon Reade, produced by Verdant Productions and Pemberley Productions, runs at The Pavilion Theatre until May 13th before going on national tour.