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Private Peaceful

by on 21 June 2022

Lost Days of Wine and Roses

Private Peaceful

by Michael Morpurgo

Nottingham Playhouse and Jonathan Church Theatre Productions at Richmond Theatre until 25th June, then on tour until 9th July

Review by Eleanor Lewis

“They are not long, the days of wine and roses” warned Ernest Dowson in his 1896 poem Vitae Summa Brevis, and for Charlie and Thomas Peaceful and the rest of their generation approaching adulthood in 1914, that line was particularly pertinent.

Michael Murpurgo’s Private Peaceful tells the story of the two Peaceful brothers and their inescapable fate.  Younger brother Thomas, ‘Tommo’, tells the story as he keeps watch through the night before a significant event in his older brother’s life.  The action moves backwards and forwards with the narrative.  There is perhaps an assumption that Tommo is the main character but the story is that of both brothers. 

Tommo (Daniel Rainford) looks back on their Devon childhood, the loss of his father, the casual exploitation of the family by the local squire and both brothers’ love for their school friend Molly.  The story of both brothers falling for one woman, in the hands of a lesser storyteller than Michael Murpurgo, might be the whole tale, but not here.  Molly ultimately falls for older brother Charlie (Daniel Boyd) and they marry.  There is a little struggle over this for Tommo but eventually the brothers reconcile and all three maintain their strong bond.  It is WWI and its catastrophic consequences that form the main event here. 

Fired up by a visiting recruitment officer, Charlie and Tommo go to war, despite Tommo’s being too young to fight.  Both brothers then go on to face the type of experiences that many of the men sent overseas to fight found themselves dealing with, and which are now well-documented.  There is a bullying commanding officer, unfit for command, and a young, inexperienced commanding officer who proves to be braver than he seems.  Tommo’s blossoming relationship with a local woman is brought to a sudden, violent end and ultimately Charlie’s selfless and heroic conduct brings him only misery.

The War itself is strikingly well created by strong lighting and sound design (Matt Haskins and Dan Balfour).  The Devon countryside, a homely kitchen and a filthy trench with shells thumping in from all directions are a great enhancement to the whole work.

The story is strong and communicates well, particularly to a younger audience (the book from which the play is adapted is aimed at older children), but it is a busy narrative for the stage and Simon Reade’s adaptation became rather frenzied in Act 2 where it was difficult to hang on to the plot line unless you had prior knowledge of it. 

Lucy Sierra’s set is both impressive and atmospheric, it is also complex and quite crowded.  This survived Act 1 but there were a lot of costume and character changes for the seven actors during Act 2, which required a fair bit of concentration on behalf of both audience and actors.  As the Act progressed actors made rapid entrances and exits, changing both costume and character rapidly, and generally pouring with sweat which risked pushing the whole thing a bit too close to farce for comfort.  Simplification and-or the addition of ideally two actors would help.

Some of the lyrical elements of the story were overwhelmed: a watch is passed from character to character as the story progresses to mark the passing or loss of time; the song Oranges and Lemons which the brothers sang to each other during their lives and which also echoes stages of life and the passing of time, features from time to time.  These both popped up early on but were rather lost in the later fray.  Similarly, there was some attractive choreographed movement (Neil Bettles) linking or emphasising specific parts of the action, but there wasn’t enough of it to make it work. 

As an ensemble piece, all actors deserve credit for their adaptability, particularly those playing several roles.  Daniel Boyd as Charlie, however, avoided sentimentality and made a dignified journey from boy to man to soldier, personifying the sacrifice of that generation; while Daniel Rainford as the younger Tommo provided an endearing portrayal of a child thrust into manhood in the worst possible way.  Liyah Summers’ Molly was a light, positive presence as the dark descended, one of the many women left behind to bring their children up and provide the next generation.  

Overall, though over-complex, this is a strong production which is well worth seeing.

Eleanor Lewis, June 2022

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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