Simon Reade’s play adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s classic novel, Private Peaceful, is no stranger to the stage. It has found homes in the West End, regional theatres across the country, and is always a popular choice at The Edinburgh Fringe. But for this production at The Barn Theatre in Cirencester, the stakes have never been higher, nor the play so innovatively staged.
BoxLess Theatre’s interpretation of Private Peaceful is the first to open inside the theatre since The Barn was closed as a result of the pandemic. It enjoyed a short, but successful run at the outdoor summer theatre festival, BarnFest, and now audiences can enjoy it, in socially distanced fashion, from The Barn’s auditorium.
Having been such a popular novel for older children and young adults, the story of Tommo Peaceful is likely to be a familiar one, the First World War soldier recounts his short life through childhood and in to the army. It lends itself well to a theatrical setting, and Simon Reade’s adaptation trims away many of the supporting characters, leaving Tommo to focus on the relationship he had with brother Charlie, and Molly, the girl they both loved.
This is a story that really gets to grips with the senselessness of war, while exploring brotherly love and exposing the injustices experienced by many in the army, particularly at the hands of an incompetent commanding officer. Told in this first person narrative, it’s a powerful piece of theatre that will resonate with fans of the book and first-timers alike.
BoxLess Theatre are never ones to shy away from doing things differently, and in their telling of this story, Tommo is played by Emily Costello. It’s a truly outstanding performance, balancing the enthusiasm of youth with the fear of combat, but there’s a bravery within the performance too.
Costello is accompanied on stage by James Demaine playing Charlie, and while both performers voice additional characters, Demaine’s wonderful interpretation of those who come in to the Peaceful’s lives bring elements of comedy as well as heartache.
Demaine creates a whole world from musical instruments and everyday objects, making it feel like a folk tale, but the true world of Tommo Peaceful is created by a combination of lighting and music from Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner and Harry Smith, who have created something both visually impactful and engaging, elevating the piece to a whole new level from its outdoor run.
BoxLess Theatre are comprised of Alexander Knott and Zöe Grain, who serve as Director and Movement Director respectively for Private Peaceful. Their previous productions have always been impressive, but in this case, it feels like their company has come of age. Where once they produced excellent work off-West End, this production could transfer to the West End tomorrow (if it were open).
Knott perhaps understands this play better than any director who has tackled it before, bringing it to life in a way that surprises and delights the audience, and with Grain’s breathtakingly alluring movement work, the result is an exquisite modern take on a beloved classic.
With the country currently facing an entirely different kind of battle, and arguably our own inept commanding officer at the helm, Private Peaceful is a timely reminder that when sacrifices have to be made, lessons also have to be learnt. In the future we will look back at the theatres and the productions which blazed a trail, and adapted to keep theatre alive, BoxLess Theatre’s Private Peaceful and The Barn Theatre will rightly have earned their place in that particular history lesson.
Private Peaceful is at the Barn Theatre until 27th September. Tickets are on sale here.