Private Peaceful has become one of the iconic historical fiction stories that really cements the popular image of life for First World War soldiers. Inspired after the author of the book (and play) Michael Morpurgo saw the name “Peaceful” on a tombstone, the story is one of tragedy and loss, waste and love, heroes and betrayal, and it has almost every stereotype of the Great War that we now associate with it. As a story it draws attention to the frankly barbaric practice of the British Army during that war of executing “cowards” and deserters, as well as the more general tragedy of war and the impact it has on people. As a play it brings that story to life, and is especially poignant as we rapidly approach the centenary of the end of World War 1.
Watching this play reminded me of the book I read when I was a younger teenager. Although there were some minor adjustments to the plot (which added to the authenticity in my personal opinion), refamiliarising myself with the story at an older age made me realise that there were some similarities with the even more iconic All Quiet On The Western Front – the symbolism of everyday items outliving their holders, cruel and callous officers who clearly have never fought for a day in their lives commanding weary but honourable soldiers, mud and death permeating everything. Of course, there are plenty of differences (not least because Private Peaceful has a smaller cast of characters, has more focus on the backstory, and is from the English rather than German perspective), but both texts very much draw on and reinforce (or in the case of All Quiet, probably helped initiate) the popular views of the Western Front. In that regard, this play has joined a wider body of literature, which should hopefully see it become a staple for people to gain an understanding of the waste of that war.
Let us be candid here, it was the acting of Antony Craig that carried the day – which makes sense as it was a one-man play. But Craig managed to convey a world of emotions on stage in a very human and relatable manner, and utilised the space he had been given in a highly effective manner, moving around the stage and somehow managing to make himself larger and smaller upon command. Playing the titular Private Thomas “Tomo” peaceful, he manages to bring the character to life in a manner that could speak to the audience – even though none I assume were born in Middle England. He clearly worked closely with the choreographer and director to help with this, but he certainly made this play his own.
Plus seeing him flawlessly switch between several types of British accents was an impressive feat in and of itself.
From an aesthetic perspective a lot was done with a considerable lack of props or anything really. A chair, a wire bed, and a mattress (and an army uniform) were all that was required to bring the story to life. Well, apart from the acting (mentioned above). But the minimal setting really drew attention to the dialogue and the story, and did not distract as can sometimes be the case in higher-end productions. The props were simply that – props to help the imagination and add weight to the words. The lighting was impressive too – managing to have the shadows of a church window appear as a backdrop was something that was quite inspired.
Sadly the audio which was admittedly the weakest part of the performance – there were some minor tweaking problems with balance, and sometimes the sound effects drowned out the dialogue, which was distracting. Furthermore, the music was at times a little too obviously synth-originated, leading to a slightly cheaper feel than the rest of the play deserved. But it did manage to come through in the end, and for the most part it did not distract too much.
Overall, a strong and moving performance for a strong and moving story. It frankly join the pantheon of powerful plays and performances that examine the folly of the Great War.