London Theatre Review 2015
"In order to make Morpurgo’s text more accessible Reade’s decision to open it up for a much fuller cast is one that really lifts this production."
PRIVATE PEACEFUL by Simon Reade
Michael Morpurgo's PRIVATE PEACEFUL was adapted into a one-man play by Simon Reade and enjoyed huge praise as it toured the UK gaining great notices at Edinburgh Fringe. Reade has re-adapted his play for The National Youth Theatre’s rep company as they take up their West End residency at the Ambassador Theatre.
2014 marks 100 years since the start of WW1 and Morpurgo's book, aimed at young adults, brings to life the struggle and pain that was inflicted upon many hundreds of thousands of normal families in 1914. Through the eyes of the Peaceful brothers, Big Joe, Charlie and Tommo, the audience is guided through a simple but challenging time for the Peaceful family as they try to cope with their change of circumstance after the death of their father. Just as their mother begins to put the family back on track war breaks out and the Peaceful brothers, Charlie and Tommo, find themselves stuck deep in the trenches facing the enemy.
In order to make Morpurgo’s text more accessible Reade’s decision to open it up for a much fuller cast is one that really lifts this production. Here he has been able to paint a different picture of this hugely important part of history which maintains the horror and tragedy whilst at the same time keeping the humour and emotion that is powerfully etched in Morpurgo’s original text.
The play is presented in flashback by ‘Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful’ who is reflecting on his own personal history and his time in the army and trenches. The decision to split ‘Tommo’s’ role between two actors who represent the younger and older ‘Tommo’, Stuart Wilde and Sam Havicon respectively, affords the company the opportunity to humanise ‘Tommo’s’ story in a more realistic way. Havicon is always outside of the scenes he’s remembering which create loneliness in the character that comes across with remarkable frankness. As the older ‘Tommo’ there are clear signs of the heavy burden of guilt he has been feeling and the warmth and fondness in how he remembers his brother ‘Charlie’. The reserve that Havicon presents throughout the play is a perfect example of the emotional reaction men experienced at this time.
"...worried and scared and about to go over to their certain death ‘Charlie’ doesn’t let go of his brother."
An interesting addition to the production is the pressures that many young men felt during 1914 to enlist. Being only 16 it was inevitable that ‘Tommo’ would see it as his duty to enlist with his brother and it leaves one thinking of how many others followed their older siblings into the trenches. The production takes great care to show the balance of what life was like before the war for the Peaceful boys and what it was like during.
The slight detachment Havicon is able to give the older ‘Tommo’ is not afforded to Wilde who brings a youthful innocence to the 16-year-old ‘Tommo’. As the older ‘Tommo’ remembers his school days and his parents and his brothers blossoming relationship with ‘Molly’, in a great turn by Ayten Manyera, the audience becomes privy to a young man who is filled with pride, honour and unrelenting love for his brothers. Wilde has a tenderness in his performance that is shown through every scene he has with his brothers and this closeness between the three comes across as genuine affection.
During one scene in which young ‘Tommo ‘is forced to share a bed with 'Big Joe', the lightheartedness is followed by a wonderful display of brotherly affection. Almost unnoticeable but clearly intended Wilde holds ‘Big Joe’s’, Dominic Grove, hand and gently strokes it as he explains his new predicament. Each time one saw Grove and Wilde together there was always careful in how they brought ‘Tommo’ and ‘Big Joe’ to life which underpinned ‘Tommo’s’ love for his brothers but also his gentle innocence.
The warmth of that moment is as touching as it is real. ‘Tommo’s’ love and idealisation of his older brother is reciprocated by ‘Charlie’ who knows only too well what the role of an older brother really is. Fabian McCallum wonderfully brings to life ‘Charlie Peaceful’ with a mature and caring touch that never understates his duty to his brothers and his family. There is a stubbornness to ‘Charlie’ that does play a role in his story but the audience sees as a committed and principled nature that is caring, loving and just.
One cannot underestimate the significance of the Peaceful brother's last scene together. Both Wilde and McCallum bring their deep brotherly love and respect to a heartbreaking final conversation that leaves one wanting to interject and have them comfort each other. McCallum is stoic and brave as he delivers ‘Charlie’s’ final words and his reserve is maintained with a powerful punch that is brought home to the audience.
The National Youth Theatre Company have a creative team that has served their company well providing them with the tools and guidance they have needed to present such an intensely rich production. This is, after all, a West End run and has been treated as such by both the company and their creative team and the final result is remarkable. Verity Quinn’s design is simple but effective and never aims of overfill the stage with Thomas White’s lighting and David Gregory’s sound unflinchingly all brought home by Olly Fox’s music.
Director Paul Hart creates a good balance between the brother's life back in England and the horrors they experience during the war. His use of space and the theatre itself gives another interesting aspect of this production that allows the audiences more connectivity to the brother's story. This all builds up to the final battle scene which brings the elements of Fox, Quinn, White and Gregory together perfectly. As ‘Charlie’ looks down at the injured ‘Tommo’ he remains determined to stay with his brother. With the rest of the men, worried and scared and about to go over to their certain death ‘Charlie’ doesn’t let go of his brother. Iqra Rizwan is brutal as the ‘Colonel’ ordering ‘Charlie’ to go over with the rest of the company and the resulting scene will become somewhat ingrained on one's memory.
After leaving the theatre I was struck by the number of schoolchildren who had gotten emotionally caught up by this production. One is left wondering what they had thought of the war before PRIVATE PEACEFUL and how this idea of war and of these men and women had been formed. For a lot of them, war is something that is part of their daily lives and they can’t watch the news without seeing some image of conflict. Perhaps this production will make them ask questions about the reasons why these conflicts happen.