‘Private Peaceful’ at Theatre Royal Haymarket

Adapted from an eponymous Michael Morpurgo novel for older children, Private Peaceful is a one man show about the last hours of a young soldier’s life, set in 1916 in the trenches in Belgium.  On a bare stage with only the clothes he is standing in and an iron bed, Tommo Peaceful tells the story of his short life and why he is awaiting death by firing squad at 6 in the morning.

In a strictly limited run of the National Theatre production, Paul Chequer, gives a tremendous performance, taking on all the characters, from the Colonel for whose family four generations of Peacefuls have worked, to the bullying Sergeant with whom Tommo has his fateful disagreement, as well as the old toothless woman who accuses him of cowardice when he runs away from the recruitment officer visiting his home village in Devon.

The changes in pace and emotion are seamless, for a few moments, we, like Tommo, are back in the joyful days of his childhood when he wanted nothing more than to run through the woods and fields with his big brother Charlie and their friend Molly, until, the ticking of the watch that he keeps like a talisman in his pocket, reminds him of his approaching death.

Morpurgo has said that the inspiration for the novel was visiting Ypres and discovering how many young British soldiers had been court-martialled and execute for cowardice.  He has re imagined the underlying stories for a young contemporary audience, and it sits almost as a companion piece for the hugely successful War Horse.  

In both stories, the protagonists are essentially naive innocents, caught up in the war by the turn of events, not because of any great conviction on their part.  Tommo Peaceful is there because he has always followed his brother everywhere, and wouldn’t have thought of staying behind at home when Charlie signed up.  And it is the thought of the happy days of childhood, rather than religious belief or any notion of King and Country, that sustains him in his last hours.

The injustice of executing a young man essentially to make an example of him, to rid any others of ideas of questioning authority as yet another ‘big push’ was being planned, is shameful history that is well not forgotten.  As we walked away from the theatre I couldn’t really explain the deep impression it had made on me, so instead, talked about the cleverness of the actor’s performance.  Behind us in the street were two teenage girls, who in their outrage at the inequity could moderate neither the pitch of their voices nor their volume:

‘But that’s just not right.  He only wanted to stay with his brother. It’s not right.  It’s just wrong.’

”At’s what happens when the nutters are in charge though, innit?’

A fair summary.

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