war footing

Over the top and into battles in the war to end all wars.

Pictures: Manuel Harlan

Private Peaceful

Coventry Belgrade


There’s little that’s peaceful in Act 2 of Private Peaceful. The Great War is raging, and all six of the characters here (at times playing several parts) are caught up in it. It’s – for them as much as any of the ‘Tommies’ in the trnches - a thankless, brutal and hopeless situation.

So, in a not surprising coincidence, the chief character in the play – and in Michael Morpurgo’s story - is called Tommo, just as he was for the original Bristol, Edinburgh, West End and national tour production which was adapted by Simon Reade and launched almost two decades ago.

The play falls into two parts, or halves. In the first, we encounter the relationship of three main characters: Tommo (Tommy), his elder brother Charlie, and Molly, the girl both brothers fall in love with, but Tommo is distraught when Charlie wins her and a baby is conceived. The relationship between the two brothers is extremely close and fond, and though it might have threatened to, this does not break their love and support for each other.  

The closeness of family is the essential feature of this section. It might seem that this sequence is a fraction more pallid compared with the violence – and tragedy – that will follow. But the acting, especially of the trio – Daniel Rainford as Tommo, Tom Kranji (covering for Daniel Boyd on Press night) as Charlie, and Liyah Summers as Molly, rather saves the day.

It would, just possibly, be reasonable to compare this earlier part with elements of the Irish play tradition – O’Casey for instance. And in a way Reade’s adaptation fits it successfully into a tradition of that kind.

Charlie is sensitive, protective, loving of his brother. And with reason. What makes Rainford’s playing of Tommo so appealing is his beautifully poignant, affectionate, unquestioning trust in his brother (despite the rivalry in love).

We know he is very much a teenager (too young to join up, although he insists on doing so); thus, as a vulnerable boy, we see him saved from a dangerous falling tree by their father, who dies instead; something he feels too ashamed to admit to his brother, till the end.    


Liyah Summers as Molly

There is a strange distinction here between the brothers’ speaking: Charlie actually sounds Irish; Tommo definitely not. Would two brothers really talk to each other in accents that are totally at odds? It does seem a bit strange, even though it scarcely spoils the dialogue; we believe in the well-defined characters too much for that.

In some ways the delight initially is neither of these, but their mentally deficient and rather touchingly overweight brother, Joe. Robert Ewens makes of this especially vulnerable boy a wonderfully believable character. Hunched shoulders, nervous laughs, not quite getting the point, always a hint – or a lot – of confusion. His brothers understand, and are tender, devoted and caring towards him. We have no doubt that for them his life is as important as theirs. There is no teasing, no bullying, are no dismissive remarks. Their affection for Joe lends a crucial dimension to the family’s unity. He is as important to them as they are to each other.

The (now widowed) mother matters too. She is firm, commanding, but not unduly controlling. Emma Manton makes of her (Hazel Peaceful) another part of the jigsaw. She doesn’t appear much, but when she does, Manton makes of her as effective a figure as the half dozen other roles she doubles as.

In fact earlier on her speaking was more lucid and impeccable than the boys’. Another fine performance (and several roles, including an army brigadier and terrified captured German soldier): each member of the six-man, multi-role cast is key to the development, and she certainly achieves a great deal, delivering strong characterisation every time.

Why is this production so striking? It scores in almost every respect. The lighting - sharp whites alternating at just the right moment with a soft amber – is perfectly coordinated; the spots, in each of those colours where apt, and often enough picking out Tommo alone, hit the exact mark every time.

joe and Thommo

Robert Ewens as Joe and Daniel Rainford

Perhaps above all the use of the cyclorama strikes one as ideal, whether a darkish blue, apricot, fully orange, or an appropriate and impactful grey as we move to the (military) second half. This lighting (Matt Haskins) proved a huge asset to what was going on onstage.

Along with this is Lucy Sierra’s splendid set, turning in the second half into a grey stone or sandbagged structure, intended to benefit from constructing, many levels; it serves to create a rather awesome World War context. Yet those levels are used in a largely more benign version for Act I: By introducing a pair of sloping platforms Sierra manages, vividly, to enable Tommo to leap and hurtle around as a boy of his age might well. This brings Tommo’s youth to the fore; and partly explains why Charlie is still so protective of his kid brother.

It's Elle While’s superbly intelligent direction (she has close connections with Shakespeare’s Globe) which gives this engrossing staging such momentum. She manages to contrast innocence with liveliness, moves her characters - all of them - in skilful, vivid, varied and indeed masterful way, slick or subtle and meticulously mapped out. Those sundry levels, nicely contrasted, would be pointless if they weren’t used, perceptively and indeed cleverly. Often in Act 2, the individuals intertwine, intermittently: sometimes confusedly, sometimes with passion or excitement, sometimes celebrating the sheer joy of life (or of surviving so far). Seeing the production was like watching poetry or artistry: we were constantly beguiled, unavoidably drawn in.  

Rainford’s Tommo was, for me, at his absolute best when alone onstage, picked out (as mentioned) by precise spotlighting from vertically above. The intensity of each of his late soliloquys – there were several – gave us the chance to see Tommo as a real, tangible, nearly grown up figure. Tommo is puzzled, animated, determined, hopeful, considerate, regretful, always fond, sweet, sometimes reflective. It’s a large compass to engage with, a very wide range of personality. It was such a pleasure to see Rainford encompassing them.    

The music, and the singing, by several of the characters at different stages, but especially by Tommo himself, was beautifully enhancing. Sometimes it was a shared folk melody – reminiscent of Irish. Several times it was a touching rendering of ‘Oranges and Lemons’, the various churches (‘the great bell of Bow’, etc.) serving as a doting memory of home (‘Blighty’). Each of the characters’ singing (Charlie, Nancy, but especially Tommo) was enhanced by being so audibly accurate. So, were they moving? Yes, always.  


Tommo holding on to every precious moment of the night

On top of that the additional music (Frank Moon) gained immensely from being not just inspiring, hence relevant, strangely appropriate, but maintained at ideal levels. It enhanced, without ever dominating or thrusting itself upon us. Much of this was owed to the engineer (technician), who showed considerable shrewdness in opting for the right kind of levels. Yet another meaningful plus for this production.    

Costumes were inventive too, both in the early half, but not least in the puttees and army outfits (rather especially those of senior officers) donned by them all later on.

One delightful moment featured in Morpurgo’s story is when all those in Act I are thrilled to bits by the appearance of an aircraft above them. Again, the sound levels were expertly calibrated.

The supporting cast had many roles to play with around a dozen flling into the lap of John Dougall, who starts off briefly as the hapless father, then proceeds through schoolmaster, vicar and wicked grandma to share with us a series of soldierly roles – typically insulting, bossy, carping Sergeant Major, Captain, Army doctor and a clutch more. ‘I’m looking for boys with hearts of oak’. Dougall’s appearances were invariably great fun: not least, he was able to change character very quickly, which constantly lent this play a measure of comic detail.   

At the climax, Charlie will be shot for cowardice. In fact he has stayed behind to look after his injured brother. In some earlier versions of the play it is not Charlie, but Tommo who is shot; that was later shelved, although it might have had some merit, rendering the end more pitiable and calamitous than ever.

But one interesting feature is that in Act 2, in many respects it is Tommo who looks out for his elder brother: Tommo ‘the boy’ who has grown into the protective one. ‘You’re the best friend I ever had; you’re the best person I’ve ever known’. The close is perhaps even more moving: Charlie and Molly have named their new baby boy ‘Tommo’.    

Roderic Dunnett


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