Private Peaceful (Chapel off Chapel) – theatre review

As you enter the theatre, all you can see is a steel-framed bed with a thin mattress and blanket. To the left is an old wooden chair; with an army-issued flask and food container, a pair of worn boots. Think the World War I.

At nearly 18 years of age, Private Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful – a Brit from the West Country – is determined to stay up all night and remember the fine details of his life. He reflects on his adoration of his two brothers, Charlie (three years his senior) and Big Joe, brain damaged at birth, focusing particularly on the former who he basically shadowed. He recounts the tragedy of his father’s death, which has continued to haunt him.

In his school years, he met and immediately was besotted by the platt-haired Molly (as was Charlie), who was two years older than him. The trio used to hang out together. His teachers get a look in, as does his first fight and then his work on a farm, before a fork in the road in the relationship between Charlie and Molly. At every step along the way, Charlie had his back and when the First World War reared its ugly head and Charlie enlisted, naturally Tommo was at his side. Never mind the fact that he was underage – so were so many others.

Tommo tells us about the degradation at the hands of his instructor and about the horrors and fears involved in aerial bombardment and hand to hand combat. Through Tommo’s eyes you can all but see the thick caked mud in the trenches and the rats scurrying around and feel the driving rain on the conscripts’ backs. Wearing his tin hat, he is often ducking for cover, trying to avoid enemy fire. The war is brutal and unrelenting – its impact unmistakable.

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

Private Peaceful is evocative theatre at its finest. The prose (2003) is the work of master storyteller Michael Morpurgo – the author of the internationally acclaimed War Horse (1982) – as adapted for the stage by Simon Reade.

In a remarkably assured and compelling display of artistry, Anthony Craig inhabits the character of Tommo like a second skin. Not only that, his command of accents sees him assume 13 other personas as well in a bravura showing.  It’s not only how he delivers his lines, but the way he carries himself and his facial expressions that make it so. His is one of the greatest one person shows I have had the good fortune to see.

The vivid detail is brought to life with immaculate sound composition (be that the school yard or the battle ground), introduced at pivotal moments by Justin Gardam. The mood lighting, too, by producer Jason Bovaird ensures Private Peaceful becomes all but an immersive experience. I was totally absorbed in proceedings, rivetted to my seat, unable to takes my eyes off what was unfolding.

In fact, I am all but out of superlatives to describe the power of this 75 minute piece. Miss it and you will miss one of the truly great productions. Superbly directed by Terence O’Connell, Private Peaceful is playing at Chapel off Chapel until 8 September 2019.

Alex First

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