There aren’t many of Michael Morpurgo’s books that haven’t seen adaptations in some form. Private Peaceful, as it happens, is touring the country in this play version, following its film release in 2012.
Morpurgo’s novel for older children has been lovingly adapted by director Simon Reade and co-produced by Scamp Theatre and Fiery Angel, and is coupled with an informative programme which depicts Morpurgo’s inspiration for the story. Visiting Ypres he came across the gravestone of a Private Peaceful, whose name he borrowed for his protagonist.
The play, like the book, focuses on young private Thomas Peaceful, who is awaiting the firing squad at dawn. Over the course of the night, he relives his past growing up in Devon, his loves and losses, up until dawn when his fate awaits him, exclaiming that he does not want to spend his last night alive sleeping, but wanting to feel more alive than ever.
We see flashbacks of Peaceful’s first day at school, his meeting with first love Molly, and the unfortunate incident of his dad’s death, all through flashbacks seemingly told by one actor (Andy Daniel). The endurance that they show is remarkable; seemingly carrying many characters, of different ages and with different accents across the show.
The set is very simple; a cloth background, which, when lit (by lighting designer Wayne Dowdeswell), effectively portrays the flashes of landing bombs and flares in the bleak French landscape around him. The set, created by production designer Bill Talbot, is stark but practical for the amount of movement created by the lead.
Despite the bold design, the show does feel a bit lost in the vast auditorium, often as we struggled to hear the actor over sound effects: we wished Andy Daniel was wearing a microphone.
It should be testament to Morpurgo and Reade that the play managed to captivate an audience whose age range extended from 8 to 80 so completely: groups of school children seated, chatting noisily before the show began suddenly turned quiet as the one-man monologue unfolded.
Whilst depicting themes of the horrors of war, and showing the truth behind those ‘worthless’ soldiers, Private Peaceful is an important piece of theatre, particularly for children, in understanding our history. It is understood that 306 British soldiers were executed by firing squads in WW1, all of whom are listed in a memorial on the back of the programme. It seems a fitting memorial to those shot for cowardice after being granted posthumous pardon only in 2006.
Private Peaceful is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 5 April. For more information and tickets see the ATG Tickets website.