With harsh strobe lighting, and no warning at all, the audience is transported into Michael Morpurgo’s novel “Private Peaceful”. As one of my all-time favourite novels, I was concerned about the pages not being brought to life as I imagined in my own head, and that, having read the book a number of times over the years, I would be too familiar with it and know all of the omissions that took place in the adaptation for stage process. So was this adaptation by Simon Reade faithful to Morpurgo’s words? For the most-part, yes, but I will get out of the way now, before I continue with a very positive review, the part I was the most disappointed with. For me, Big Joe (Robert Ewens) was an underdeveloped character. In the novel, Big Joe looms large (literally and metaphorically), but in this adaptation he is merely a presence at the table. Because of this this, “Oranges and Lemons” does not take on its greater meaning and the family connection is not as strong as it could be. With the first Act running at just an hour, there would be time to devote to this all-important character.
Having got that small gripe out of the way, the rest of “Private Peaceful” is thoughtfully directed, sensitively acted and has left its mark on me. True to the novel, the audience is taken from the present war time trenches of June 1916, through our protagonist’s memories, as Tommo (Dan Rainford) tries to make sense of everything that has led up to this moment. The clock ticks away as the audience keeps Tommo company through the night as dawn approaches. The Act 1 memories show us a rather idyllic upbringing where Tommo and his big brother Charlie (Daniel Boyd) share a strong fraternal bond. From Tommo’s first day at school where Charlie saves him from a fight (and takes a caning for him in the process), Charlie is set up to be a strong, caring superhero in Tommo’s young eyes, and this bond continues as the brothers enlist into the army and into the same company.
Daniel Boyd gives the standout performance in this production. He is completely natural on the stage with this role. His gently-accented, sincere voice gives weight to the thought that this is a man to be trusted, one who can be relied on. His love and care for his family is his foremost thought, and even when he acts in his own interests, which are sometimes at odds with his family’s, he considers their feelings and their reactions. Charlie is made to be the man of the house at a young age, and Boyd is able to show the transition from a boy carelessly playing in a river to a man working on a farm to keep a roof over his family’s head, with subtlety. The switch then to soldier is more stark, but Boyd never loses that carefree part of Charlie. It is a nuanced performance and one to be applauded.
The only other actor to play just one part is Dan Rainford, who plays Tommo. In contrast to Charlie, Tommo never seems to mature. Yes he goes through changes, with the war weighing heavily on his mental state, but because he has Charlie’s protection, Tommo manages to maintain a youthful innocence. Rainford presents us with a naïve young man who almost hero-worships his older brother. Watching Tommo struggle with his emotions in the trenches (due to his evident, although recognised at the time, PTSD) is tough due to Rainford’s raw portrayal. As the scenes transition back from memory to present day, it is in these segments that Rainford really shines. He holds the attention of the audience through his soliloquys, alternating between love, confusion, anger, despair and guilt. Even though this segments are only a couple of minutes long, the anguish in them must be exhausting for Rainford to portray.
The rest of the ensemble cast play multiple parts. John Dougall, who is cast as seven different parts works incredibly hard throughout the production, and his portrayal of the grieving Estaminet owner is heartfelt. However, it is, at times, difficult to distinguish between some of these roles. It is only because I know the text well that I know that Sergeant Hanley isn’t Mr Munnings, and that Hanley then transitions into Wilkie. As an antagonist, Hanley is despised, but as the switch to the more paternal Wilkie isn’t signposted (bearing in mind that they are wearing the same uniform) the audience expects a conflict between Wilkie and Charlie to happen at any moment, so the connection between those characters is somewhat lost.
Tom Kanji, on the other hand, plays such differing roles that it would be nigh on impossible to mix them up. His presentation of the Colonel is almost a caricature of the rich land owner – a figure to be laughed at by the workers, but also one who could destroy their lives. The highlight though is the hapless pilot. A comic moment enjoyed by the audience, just as war begins to invade the tranquillity of their pastoral lives. Emma Manton who predominantly plays the role of mother, and then a soldier, is gentle in her portrayal of the widowed Hazel. Her boys are her life and this comes across to the audience. Liyah Summers, who predominantly plays Molly (but also Anna and a soldier) is carefree, fun and has a lovely singing voice, which evokes their rustic, sheltered upbringing.
The set design by Lucy Sierra is extremely clever if we consider that through Tommo’s memories, he is in fact bringing home life to the war and the two will therefore always be interlinked, past and present. The set does not move, but stage decoration changes. The overhead branches of the English countryside, at first adorned in green and flowers in Act 1, become bare barbed wire; the rolling hills become enemy territory to be captured; the riverbed becomes no man’s land. The only addition to the Act 2 set are two small sandbag walls to represent the trenches. It is beautiful in its simplicity. In partnership with the lighting design by Matt Haskins, some of the most evocative scenes come from Act 2. Where the lighting was warm in Act 1, it becomes colder and more harsh in Act 2. I always find battle scenes on stage to be uncomfortable as I ask how? How can a man go over the top? The battle scenes were made all the more poignant by the striking synchronised movements of the actors. A special thank you to Movement Director Neil Bettles for those haunting scenes.
I cannot talk about the end for fear that the tears will prevent me from writing the remainder of this review, but suffice to say, there was not a dry eye in the house. However, the last minute was completely unexpected and completely beautiful. At the moment of the deepest anguish, Tommo is left alone on the stage, and a single spotlight picks him out. In the trenches, he is bathed in the warm sunshine of home. There is hope! And then it cuts away to fields of red, evoking for me, a few lines from Wilfred Owen’s Spring Offensive:
“The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—“
Private Peaceful is playing at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 26 February. It is a heartfelt tale of love, camaraderie and despair. Just don’t forget your tissues.