Review: Private Peaceful

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There are few novels that fully capture the horrors and injustices of war like Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful. With each chapter bringing us slowly towards the inevitable ending, through the recollection of the Peaceful Brothers’ life, and the ominous undercurrents charged with tension were primed for dramatic realisation. With Simon Reade’s screenplay adapted to Bristol Old Vic and Edinburgh Fringe Festival stage, and into a film in 2012, the QEH theatre company had tough competition. And thoroughly succeeded in stunning the audience with the professionalism and scale of the production.

With an intimate actor-audience position, the stage, veneered with plywood, contrasts greatly with the oozing mud and stagnant pools of the Western front. The setting works well, however, with little difference in physical surroundings between home and No Man’s land eerily reminding the audience of the soldier’s normality. The senior tech team, headed by Alfie Poynter (of Faustus fame, see previous articles for more of his work), expertly transitioned from cue to cue, providing an immersive experience for the audience. The use of lighting and projection was consistently creative, with soft warm tones providing a homely atmosphere for early life, and contrasting greatly with the strobing, blasting, haze-filled hell-hole of the trenches. The use of projection to inform the deeply tragic nature of being court-martialed also struck a poignant chord.

The believability of the acting, particularly for such a widely-aged cast, was commendable. Following the entire childhood, and eventual adulthood, isn’t easy in the play’s runtime; in this case, the transition between young and older performers was emotional, perfectly in line with the original text. The mixture of humour and melancholy reflection was very well balanced. Lines were projected, delivered to a high standard, some resonating greatly with the viewer. It is hard to find 75 good actors, it is incredible therefore that the cast of over 75 were excellent actors;¬† notably the portrayal of Thomas ‘Tommo’ Peaceful by Barnaby Johns, and of Charlie Peaceful by Thomas Conradi, who were believable both on bunks and on the front. The costume department should also be recognised – kitting a small army is no small feat. Mention should also be made of Dan Smithson, co-director of the production, and his Tarantino-esque cameo as the vicar.

The adaptation itself  is faithful to both the screenplay and the original text, and the stage space is utilised to its fullest extent, with action happening both on-stage and off. The audience is fully engaged with the actors, largely due to their proximity, and immersed in the second act in the full psychological impact of the war; shell-shocked casualties, soldiers fumbling for gas masks, the intense action between both sides on borderline claustrophobic quarters. The similarities between the lines of soldiers on the parade ground and schoolchildren in the playground are disturbing, as is meant to be. Whilst spoilers should not be mentioned, the ending, in particular, pays both due respect to the actual fallen of WWI, whilst not being overly political: it recognises both the lions and the donkeys who led them.

Overall, the production is one of the finest to come out of QEH theatre, being both powerful and poignant, entertaining and emotional. With many congratulations to Mrs Hockenhull, Russ Cope and Dan Smithson as co-directors, Russ Cope and the Tech team, Russ again for the amazing set and finally Mrs Burns for the herculean task of costuming the extensive cast. In the opinion of the reviewer, the performance deserves to be highly recommended to anyone interested in the period, novel, or a memorable night. With the production being launched imminently, a full house is not out of the question. To the cast, break a leg, in full confidence that the authentic stretchers and their bearers will perform their job.