Private Peaceful at Nottingham Playhouse and on tour – review

Michael Morpurgo’s novel heads to the stage

Daniels Boyd and Rainford in Private Peaceful
Daniels Boyd and Rainford in Private Peaceful
© Manuel Harlan

Michael Morpurgo's popular novel Private Peaceful won the Red House Children's Book Award and the Blue Peter Book Award as well as being shortlisted for the Carnegie Award. Morpurgo acknowledges that, out of all his many novels Private Peaceful is his favourite work. This brand new stage version written for an ensemble is well adapted by Simon Reade and is a professional premiere for Nottingham Playhouse.

Directed with high imagination and verve by Elle While, with a strong emphasis on ensemble creative contributions, the play takes us through the emotional extremes of courage, love and loss, all centred around difficult family lives in rural Devon in Edwardian Britain. In 1916 we move on to the Peaceful brothers' war-torn adolescence on the murderous battlefields of The Great War in France. Private ‘Tommo' Peaceful (Dan Rainford) finds himself on a fateful journey from being a simple country lad housing a deep mental concern that he may have killed his dad, to fighting in an unsure war, at the tender age of 16, alongside his older brother Charlie (Daniel Boyd).

Over 65 million men volunteered or were conscripted as soldiers in The Great War – as World War One was called before the Second World War – and like those of the fictional Peaceful boys their true-life tragic stories were historically bound together through losing loved ones, being separated from loved ones and living through trauma in highly uncertain deadly circumstances.

Private Peaceful cuts to the heart of the human condition and brotherhood surrounding the deadly world of the trenches. The beauty of this dramatic work is crucially in the fine adaptation by Simon Reade which leaves plenty of imaginative space to be creative and includes sung sections poignantly delivered by the cast. As ensemble pieces go, this production is top-notch visceral theatre graced with extraordinarily smart acting throughout.

A thought-provoking and poetic set designed by Lucy Sierra is like a principle cast member in itself. Sierra invests the stage construct with multiple levels that turn from Devon to the trenches in the blink of an eye. The upper part suggests a bruised sky that broods with ill omens and periodically flares up with deadly bomb blasts. The gas attack is chillingly done. Yet on occasion, it also becomes the clear blue idyllic aerial home for swooping bird life symbolic of freedom in life and spiritual freedom after death.

Combining superb lighting (Matt Haskins) and sound design (Dan Balfour), every sense is brought alive watching this staged version that tells of the childhood and teenage stories of Tommo, his older brother Charlie, Big Joe (Robert Ewens) and their mutual love for Molly (Liyah Summers). Their world is in constant dramatic turmoil infused by the hopes of romantic love yet countered by personalities they grow to hate and the rash life-altering chances they dare to take.

The eight-strong ensemble are very believable and vividly re-create the key characters in Morpurgo's epic and ultimately gripping story. Private Peaceful is not without some humour and John Dougall's moustachioed brief and comical portrayal of the bad-tempered Grandma Wolf is a prime example of this.

For fond readers of Michael Morpurgo's novel this faithful staged version works supremely well and for strangers to the book it is the perfect vehicle for artistic endeavour with a penultimate unexpected twist. This classy Nottingham Playhouse production of Private Peaceful works a treat.