Private Peaceful Underbelly McEwan Hall

I found myself sitting slap bang in the middle of a big party of schoolchildren for this show and prayed they wouldn’t get bored and restless. There was no need to worry, they sat silent and enthralled throughout this moving adaptation of former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful. Like his other famous novel, War Horse, it is set during World War One and tells the story of Thomas (Tommo) Peaceful who joins up to fight for King and Country at the tender age of 15. The minimum age for enlisting was actually 19 but nobody asked too many questions, they needed all the men they could get.

Private Peaceful is alone in his cell, he has been condemned to death for cowardice, and he is counting down the minutes and hours till dawn and his execution by firing squad. He thinks back to memorable episodes in his short life and to the events which led up to this awful fate. He remembers his first day at school – the fear of the unknown, wanting to stay at home with his disabled brother Joe, being protected from the school bully by his brother Charlie and first meeting the love of his life Molly.

Tommo, Charlie and Molly become inseparable – getting involved in numerous scrapes, skinny dipping, running free and wild in the Devon countryside. Not all his memories are so happy – he also remembers his father being killed by a falling tree in the forest and feeling responsible, he finds out that his beloved Molly loves his brother Charlie and not him. And of course, he remembers the excitement of joining up which soon turns to fear and despair in the mud and noise of the trenches.

Thankfully Charlie is with him to protect and comfort him but it is his bond with his brother that ultimately is his undoing. He refuses an order from an incompetent and abusive Sergeant to advance across no-man’s land, choosing instead to stay with the badly wounded Charlie. His insubordination meets with no sympathy, and like many other young men at that time, he is sentenced to death to act as an example to others.

Andy Daniels does a wonderful job – alone on stage for 75 minutes and with little in the way of props, he acts out every character in the story and conveys all of Tommo’s emotions as he endures the long night of waiting. The final scene is unbearably moving and I doubt if there was a dry eye in the house at the end.

Irene Brownlee