Based on the same-named book by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo and perfectly pitched for the audience at which it’s primarily aimed (children aged nine and older), Private Peaceful packs a real punch.
The story focuses on two brothers who, having been brought up in rural Devon, find themselves on the muddy and brutal battlefields of World War One as shells explode, comrades fall and a fearful countdown begins...

War Horse writer Michael Morpurgo claims Private Peaceful is his favourite work, and plenty of readers and critics agree - it won both the Red House Children’s Book Award and Blue Peter Book Award.

This new stage version, adapted by Simon Reade, is unlikely to garner quite such acclaim, but it’s an undeniably powerful piece of theatre that takes a gently intimate story of family life - albeit a tough one - and chucks in a hand grenade in the shape of the Great War.

The play is told from the perspective of Private Thomas ‘Tommo’ Peaceful, hunkering down in the trenches in 1916 and recalling the loves and losses of his young life. All the events are depicted on stage - a childhood haunted by the tragic death of his father, his tight-knit family eking out an impoverished existence as farmhands and maids in rural Edwardian Devon, having fun at school and on the farm, jealousy of his older brother Charlie’s romance and ultimately his experiences - and shell-shocked PTSD - at being pitched into war at the age of 16.

The latter scenes are especially harrowing, and director Elle While’s production makes great use of a minimal set that engages the imagination as the scene of bucolic English farm life during the opening act before noise, smoke and darkness turn it into the hell of the French battlefield in the second.

With the exception of Daniel Rainford (Tommo) the excellent six-strong ensemble cast multitask throughout, with John Dougall and Emma Manton especially adept at switching costumes, accents and even sexes during a sprightly two-hour show that balances borderline light entertainment with moments of genuine emotional heft in its portrayal of life, love and loss.

The primary loss is innocence - a feeling especially palpable because Tommo is no more than a child throughout - and while Charlie’s punishment for ignoring orders to care for his wounded sibling is undeniably the play’s most shocking moment, it provides another example of the horror and futility of war, a theme tragically all too pertinent in current circumstances.

Reviewed by Steve Adams at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, on Tuesday 17 May.

4 Stars on Wed, 18 May 2022

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