Theatre Review: Private Peaceful at the Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol
This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
An unknown soldier of the First World War finds his voice as Private Thomas Peaceful in this adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel, which has been revived by Poonamallee Productions for the centenary of the outbreak of hostilities.
Tommo, played by William Troughton, brings us face to face with the extreme youth of many of those who fought in the trenches. He’s an underage recruit who only volunteered so he could stay with his older brother Charlie, expecting to have to do his bit but never to stand before a court martial on charges of cowardice. Now he’s counting down the hours of a last night, determined to stay awake and live every minute, before the firing squad awaits in the morning.
This is a production of great light and shade and its changes of pace are well judged. With a minimal set of an iron-framed bed and a few props, Troughton switches seamlessly between the bleakness of Tommo’s present and the innocence of his childhood in a Devon village. Adopting the poise of a young boy, he simultaneously breathes life into the characters of the adults who order Tommo’s world and the family and friends he holds closest. “I used to love mud,” he says, as he wistfully recalls playing in the river with Charlie and Molly, the girl he adores.
But the insidious tentacles of war must reach even as far as Tommo’s rural childhood and after the interval the mood darkens. Time on his watch ticks down and reminiscences turn to the indignities of army training and the brutality of life in water-logged trenches full of rats and lice. Troughton’s performance is totally captivating as he single-handedly recreates not only Tommo but also his universe.
The upended bed becomes the wire fence Tommo has been ordered to defend against the Hun and he finds that repeating Oranges and Lemons, the song of his childhood, is not enough to save his skin or his sanity. Howard Hudson’s lighting and Jason Barnes’s sound, both slick in the first half, become instrumental in recreating the terrifying atmosphere, as fear of imminent death is dragged out over days of incessant bombardment and compounded by the pervasive assault of gas. Only at the end is the sound in danger, perhaps intentionally, of becoming too overwhelming.
Simon Reade’s adaptation is well suited to the intimate round of the Tobacco Factory and is generally faithful to events in the novel, although the latter stages are open to some reinterpretation. What is undoubtedly retained is the poignancy of Morpurgo’s writing, revealing the callousness of a war where a mentally scarred soldier, unable to obey an order which equates to suicide, might instead be shot by his compatriots in the cold, hard light of day. Private Thomas Peaceful, in Troughton’s moving portrayal, is the most courageous of cowards who serves as a stark reminder of the unknown sacrifice of millions.
Runs until 12th July 2014 | Photo Farrows Creative Booking details are here