“Y’ain’t a coward are you?”
This is the accusation that haunts young Tommo in Simon Reade’s moving adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s First World War novel. It comes from the mouth of an old woman as a crowd of enlisted men march by and a moustachioed Sergeant Major attempts to cajole the locals into joining the war effort. So Tommo, underage and still very much a boy, signs up, along with his brother, but, as he soon discovers, war has little to do with being a hero and everything to do with simply surviving.
Morpurgo is the Childrens Laureate and his books tend to dig deeper than the average Hogwarts jaunt. Private Peaceful was inspired by the stories of the 290 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed by firing squad for cowardice during the First World War; men the British government has yet to pardon.
The play opens with the eponymous Private Tommo Peaceful lying on a dirty mattress listening to the minutes tick by on his watch. As night drags on he seeks solace in his past, he loses himself in his memories. The excellent Alexander Campbell, playing every role in this one-man show, brings Tommo’s story excitingly to life. With considerable energy and charm – and a nice line in accents – he succeeds in keeping an audience of adults and children transfixed whilst keeping the plot moving at a brisk pace.
Whether he is impersonating a young boy’s wide-eyed encounter with an aeroplane or attempting to convey the overwhelming terror of the trenches, the red-haired and boyish Campbell makes every episode compellingly real. He uses the intimacy of the Trafalgar Studios’ smaller space to his advantage, forging a real connection with his audience.
Though a longer running time might be counter-productive given the average age of the play’s target audience, the pacing is sometimes a little relentless. The bulk of the production is given over to Tommo’s experiences of war and as a result Tommo’s childhood – and in particular the intricate relationship between him, his brother Charlie and their friend Molly – is somewhat glossed over, a shame as these episodes were one of the strengths of the book. Despite this, Reade has managed to maintain the emotional impact of Tommo’s story, and the realisation of where his nightlong vigil is leading is very powerful.
The production could be technically a little tighter – on more than one occasion the use of sound effects and music distracted from rather than complimented the action. But to pick holes seems petty given the compelling nature of Campbell’s performance and the strength of the material. It is refreshing to see a play that is aimed at a younger audience that neither patronises nor leaves attentions flagging. There were a good number of kids in on the night I attended and the majority of them were completely caught up in the show.
Engaging but never overly worthy in tone, Private Peaceful manages that difficult task of providing a night out that both adults and children can enjoy equally.