Michael Morpurgo’s modern WWI masterpiece ‘Private Peaceful’ is brought to life by Little Theatre Company in a beautifully performed and moving production at Burton’s Brewhouse Theatre, directed by Tim Robinson.
“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Although commonly attributed to Josef Stalin, there’s an undeniable truth to these words. A truth which storytellers have always understood. Through the story of one family, ‘Private Peaceful’ humanises the devastating impact of the Great War. The emotional power of the novel remains in Simon Reade’s stage adaptation.
At the heart of the story is the bond between two brothers: Charlie and Tommo Peaceful. The roles could have been written for Nathan Pocock and Kieran Barrett: they are a perfect fit, evoking love, loyalty and kindness in every scene they share. Like the novel, the play is mostly told in flashback, switching between Tommo looking back at his life from the trenches to rural Devon where the Peaceful family grew up.
It’s a play of quite different halves, both realised with effective sets which transport us from the countryside of the Peaceful family childhood to the battlefields of Northern France. The simplicity of Morpurgo’s prose, and Reade’s adaptation, is where the real power of this story lies. Simmering under the surface of the childlike language in the first half are richly complex ideas about the futility and stupidity of war, the abuse of power and the fierce love of family. As the story builds towards its devastating conclusion in the second half the tone shifts to anger. We are invested in the characters within the opening minutes, caring deeply about their fate: a testament to the strength of the acting across the cast.
Jim Haywood is deeply affecting in a performance of great physicality as ‘Big Joe’, Tommo and Charlie’s disabled brother who suffered brain damage after having meningitis as a child. Jodie Whitehead’s Mrs Peaceful is a fiercely protective and loving matriarch who guides her family through the aftermath of their father’s death with convincing compassion and strength.
The lasting friendship forged in childhood between Charlie, Tommo and Molly is another utterly convincing relationship in this winning production. Sophie Towns radiates kindness as she realises that both brothers have fallen for her. There’s excellent support from the rest of the cast, notably Leon Ratcliffe as a tyrannical sergeant and Dan Tunks as a French café owner.
Shamefully, the British Army executed around 300 of its own soldiers during WWI for crimes such as desertion and cowardice. This practice is woven into the narrative of ‘Private Peaceful’ and the story helped to further the campaign to grant pardons to these men. The fact that long overdue posthumous pardons were finally granted by the UK Government in 2006 is thanks in part to this story.
Despite the darker themes of the play and the war context, courage and kindness are what ultimately shine through in this professionally staged must-see production. Upsetting but uplifting. Don’t miss it.
‘Private Peaceful’ is playing at the Brewhouse Theatre in Burton upon Trent from 27th June to 1st July 2023.