“I’m looking for boys with hearts of oak…what hates The Hun…” (the script)
Private Tommo Peaceful is all of 16 when he enlists in WWI to be with 19 year-old brother Charlie…the Germans are on the run…just one more push…There were dozens of others under age. They needed everyone they could get…We’re about to spend a long night with the anxious boy. How do you pass hours that move like sludge without going crazy? Between compulsively checking the time, Tommo tells us how he got to his current situation.
We hear about a bucolic boyhood, his father’s accidental death (for which he takes erroneous responsibility), the pivotal relationship with Charlie and a girl they both love, armed service and battle. It will take a while to grow accustomed to the accent.
Actor Shane O’Regan plays every character in the young soldier’s life from friends to strangers (including women), to army personnel fluidly and with differentiation. Tommo episodically relives his past returning intermittently to an overwrought present. His story is intimate and sympathetic.
There are rats in the trenches (less than 200 yards away from the Germans) made muddy by unending rain, a march into Belgium from France, the single night in a tavern when Tommo gets proudly drunk for the first time, sentry duty, reconnaissance in blackened faces, stench, gas, bombardment, bodies, Charlie’s attempts at protection, the inevitable commanding officer who insists his bedraggled men advance to sure death…
Though there’s charm in the early story, we feel Tommo’s fear during combat, and certainly recognize pointless loss of life, empathy is ever achieved. The play has been performed a great deal, so it’s difficult to tell whether Director/Adapter Simon Reade decided on this approach or his actor has grown outsized over time. Most movement is so exaggerated and storytelling so stressed (even before The Somme), it seems like performance rather than reliving. Important experience is thus diminished.
Shane O’Regan is clearly talented. There are wonderful passages. The performer’s unflagging energy and mercurial characterization are instrumental to what works. Alas, however, something’s missing.
Not having read the original book, I can’t comment on adaptation, but the script is very fine. As to direction, Reade uses the stage with great variety. Dramatization, however, has grown too big for its britches.
Scenic and lighting design by Anshuman Bhatia is pitch perfect. The single iron bed and threadbare mattress is suggestive. A scrim of dusty clouds works well and morphs considerably with subtle lighting marking vignettes.
Jason Barnes’ sound design is also spot on, evoking backgrounds, unnerving during battle, never overpowering.
Prolific author Michael Morpurgo is perhaps best known for the kind of wise children’s stories that also appeal to adults. Most of his American audience is familiar with the writer for his splendid book/play/film War Horse.
“I was a war baby, born in 1943. As I grew up, I soon learned how war had torn my world apart. I lived next to a bombsite, played in it because we weren’t supposed to, and because it was the best adventure playground imaginable. But I soon learned that much more than buildings was destroyed by war. My parents had split up because of it. I knew my handsome young uncle Pieter, killed in 1940, in the RAF, through a photograph, through the stories I heard of him and through the grief my mother lived every day of her life. I missed him and I’d never known him. War continues to divide people, to change them forever.”
Michael Morpurgo from an interview with Michael Stahler
Photos by Ahron R. Foster
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
Directed and Adapted for the Stage by Simon Reade
Performed by Shane O’Regan
312 West 36th Street
Through October 7, 2018