Review: Love overshadows war in Private Peaceful at the Belgrade Theatre

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Private Peaceful at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Daniel Boyd, Liyah Summers, Daniel Rainford, Emma Manton in Private Peaceful (photo Manuel Harlan)
Daniel Boyd, Liyah Summers, Daniel Rainford, Emma Manton in Private Peaceful (photo Manuel Harlan)

Private Peaceful is based on Michael Morpurgo’s bestselling novel for older children – though don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a play for kids. It is a powerful evocation of love that transcends horror, and of how war can bring out the best in human beings as well as the worst.

This ensemble touring production tells a simple tale and tells it well. The Peaceful brothers are raised in a bucolic countryside in the years before the First World War. They and their brother Big Joe (Robert Ewens), disabled from birth by meningitis, enjoy the pleasures and torments of the rural life. They don’t much like school, but they do like playing in the fields and woods. Trouble comes when their father, a woodsman, is killed by a falling tree, something for which Tommo Peaceful (Daniel Rainford) unjustly blames himself. The family face eviction but are saved when their landlord (John Dougall) offers their mother (Emma Manton) a place as a servant in his house. Soon Charlie Peaceful (Daniel Boyd) falls in love with local girl Molly (Liyah Summers). But so does Tommo. Their rivalry never seriously challenges their love for each other, and the Peaceful family plus Molly become increasingly close. It's not long before Molly becomes pregnant, and she and Charlie are married.

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So much so sweet. Simon Reade’s adaptation and Elle While’s direction steer the play just this side of sentimentality. Rural life at the turn of the century was hard, but to dwell on that would have missed the point of the tale, which is to showcase the love between the main characters, a love which is multi-dimensional and entirely believable on stage.

Then comes war. Like many, the Peaceful brothers do their duty, Tommo lying about his age to be with his brother. Very soon they are thrust into the horrific world of the trenches. I must admit I didn’t quite feel the horror that the story sought to convey. Nevertheless, the striking set, with its dark ramps and twisted, tortured steel sculpture hanging above, suggested the tangled, damaged state of mind that quickly threatens them. When Charlie disobeys an order to attack to stay with his wounded brother Tommo, he is arrested and sentenced to death for his loyalty.

The story is cleverly told in flashbacks, easily switching from the condemned man’s last hours in his cells and the memories, happy and sad, that he shared with his brother, to the events themselves. So, the story evokes a life lived, much more than the sum of its parts.

Private Peaceful is on a tour of provincial theatres, and the cast and crew work effortlessly together. There are some fine performances too, but it is the overall effect of this ensemble production that lingers. It focuses on the love that is felt between the main characters while keeping the horrors of war just a little in the background, so that they become the context rather than the subject. It’s an effect much harder to pull off than it might seem.

Private Peaceful ran at the Belgrade Theatre from May 17 to 21. Visit belgrade.co.uk for details of future performances at the theatre.