war scene

Privates Peaceful at war. Pictures: Manuel Harlan

Private Peaceful

Birmingham Rep


The Great War, First World War, war to end all wars . . . a conflict with many names, and many dead, around 20 million by most accounts, with young - and old - men eager to take the King’s shilling, all riding on a wave of patriotism – or escaping being labelled a coward by staying at home.

They left to fight in the summer of 1914 with the promise it would all be over by Christmas, and it was, eventually, by the Christmas of 1918.

Michael Morpurgo’s novel for older children chronicles the life of one such young recruit, Thomas Thommo Peaceful and through him his older brother Charlie and his family in a tied cottage on the Devon estate of The Colonel, with Simon Reade’s adaptation bringing the story vividly and dramatically to life on the stage.

We open with Thommo desperately trying to stay awake, this particular night somehow being too important to be given over to sleep - as to why? We will need to wait to the sad and dramatic finale to find out.

As Thommo battles through the night he relives his short life, all 16 years of it, through the early hours.

Thommo, played by Daniel Rainford, is one of three sons of James, the forester on the estate, who dies in a tree felling accident. His older brother, by three years, is Charlie, played by Daniel Boyd, while the third is Big Joe who suffered meningitis soon after birth which has severely affected his mental capacities.

brother in arms

Brothers in arms: Thommo, Daniel Rainford, with his wounded brother Charlie, Daniel Boyd

It is a wonderful portrayal by the trio, the young Thommo trying to be grown up and looking up to his brother Charlie, while Charlie is the confident one with a rebellious streak and a sense of social justice, of right and wrong, with both protective of the toddler-like Big Joe, a sensitive performance from Robert Ewans who makes Joe a real person, a young child forever locked in a big man’s body.

We follow Thommo as he starts school, under the strict Mr Munnings, and where he meets his first love Molly, played by Liyah Summers, which has its own problems as Charlie also loves her.

We have skinny dipping, Charlie being sacked for an act of kindness, a pregnant Molly and Charlie in a quick wedding . . . and then war.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand — heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire – and his wife Sophie were shot dead by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. The touch paper of a dangerous powder keg in the Balkans had been lit and the explosion quickly followed plunging Europe into a devastating war. 


John Dougall beating the recruiting drum of patriotism and fear of the Hun

Charlie answered the call to arms with Thommo, then just 15, refusing to stay behind, so the pair joined up as “twins”. It is not emphasised, but the simple fact registers that the desperate need for recruits, cannon fodder as it turned out, trumped the need for rigorous, or even cursory checks on ages. A quarter of a million underage soldiers fought in British khaki, the youngest joined up aged 12 and fought on the Somme at 13!

The Peacefuls came upon the brutish Sgt Hanley, played by John Dougall, in one of his ten roles from the strict Mr Munnings to the kindly James Peaceful to the grouchy Grandma Wolf, from Doctor to French cafe owner, with a vicar, a doctor and various officers and NCOs thrown in, and all credit, he made each character noticeably different.

He was not alone, Tom Kanji had eight roles from bullying schoolboy Jimmy Parsons, to a pioneering pilot to an out of his depth, newly arrived lieutenant.

Emma Manton was a splendid mother, Hazel Peaceful, but that was just her day job as she weighed in as an Army Chaplain, an injured German soldier, an old crone and even got promoted to Brigadier.


Liyah Summers as Molly

Liyah didn’t escape the multi-tasking either, sharing her Molly with Anna, the teenage daughter of the French bar owner, a girl who fell for Thommo. She also managed a recruiting sergeant, a German soldier and a guard.

The sheer horror of war is brought home daily on TV as the Russian aggression in Ukraine unfolds which perhaps adds a poignancy to this production. The horrors of trench warfare in the First World War are difficult to recreate graphically on stage but the production gives a feel of the fear, danger and sheer terror the simple squaddies faced, the futility of it all and the impossible and absurd, suicidal orders they were tasked with carrying out.

It was easy and graphic enough for a young audience to grasp on a simple, clever set from Lucy Sierra, that ranged from bucolic to bleak thanks to lighting from Matt Haskins. The lighting on the backdrop ranging from rural summertime to the forboding storm clouds of war on a set with three simple ramps and a platform which served as forest, river banks, village and trenches.

Directed by Elle While the story leads us, in flashbacks between Thommo’s counting down the hours of night, from happy childhood to the tragic and pointless end we perhaps had grown to expect, except there is a twist to increase the sadness.

It is a book aimed at youngsters and my grandson, a month short of eleven and a seasoned theatre goer, took it all in, he thought it was brilliant and worthy of five stars. And, as perhaps he was the real target audience, who am I to disagree. To 23-04-22.

Roger Clarke


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