With exquisite lighting and set design, the Oxford Playhouse transports you into the green woods of rural 1910s England, to make you curse again a war that tears boys from their homes and children from their fathers.
Based on the classic children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, Private Peaceful follows the life of Tommo Peaceful (played by Daniel Rainford), a working class boy from the English countryside, who joins up to fight in the Great War. The narrative flits between Tommo as an exhausted soldier telling himself stories through a night in the trenches as he anxiously awaits the morning of his brother’s (played elegantly by Daniel Boyd) execution; to the sweet homely tales from his childhood countryside coming to life around him. It felt very intriguing to have the monologue split up like this, the story within a story can be so mesmerising. The play is edited from the beloved book by Micheal Morpurgo and follows very similar narrative beats from the novel. I would have liked to see a more show-like theatrical climax to the piece, but there is something to be said for how faithfully the writer (Simon Reade) brought the book alive.
The play is performed in a very Brechtian style with a small cast, unchanging set, and as much fourth wall breaking tech as you can get within a proscenium arch theatre. The show starts with bellowing sounds of jet engines overhead as the lights shine onto and over the audience simulating the feeling of being underneath a huge fighter plane.
The gorgeous minimal set (designed by Lucy Sierra) was transformed into multiple locations by exquisite lighting (designed by Matt Haskins) and the expertise of the actors (directed by Elle While). Large wire branch-like structures at the top at times felt like the welcoming boughs of a lush oak, the sparse gnarled leafless canopy of foreign woods, and the twisted contortions of barbed wire. A small platform of asymmetrically aligned planks turned from school desks, to muddy banks, to rivers, to trench tops depending on the warmth of the light and the imaginary squelch of the actors’ gaits. With a small cast, each player but Tommo took on multiple roles with changing wardrobe and characterisation.
Emma Manton shone particularly brightly in her many and varied roles. By changing her stance, gesture, voice, and countenance I could have sworn she had been multiple different actors, and each was captivating and fully rounded.
These Brechtian elements are usually used to remind an audience of where they are, to remind them they’re watching a performance; to encourage them to reflect on the message of the show. Sadly, I didn’t feel a strong understanding of the message of the piece beyond the general idea that war is... bad. Even the message the script describes of the futility and pointlessness of war seems somewhat undermined by the show’s programme which has a timeline of war events entitled “The Great War for Civilisation”. On the whole, I feel a more complex and topical takeaway could have been offered to the audience. This may have brought life to the performers, who at times seemed to trudge through the lines, and at others sped through scenes, as if they wished it were already over. Perhaps though, since the auditorium teamed with the joy and wonder of hundreds of teenagers experiencing theatre, I was not the target age to decipher this show’s messages.
All in all, it was a diverting evening that transported the audience in the way that only a play can, that had schools of pupils in stunned silence, and conjured beautiful images in the countryside that warmed my soul to think of on my bus ride home.