Thursday, 20 August 2009

Private Peaceful - Scamp Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe

Private Peaceful
By Michael Morpurgo
Adaptor/Director: Simon Reade
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman
Fringe Rating: 5 Stars

Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s award-winning book, Private Peaceful tells the tale of Thomas Peaceful (Tommo), a teenage boy who ends up as an infantry soldier in the First World War. A one-man show, Finn Hanlon is superb, playing the multitude of characters with a versatility and conviction that takes the breath away.

As he waits for some unknown horror, Tommo checks his watch and counts down the hours whilst recounting the story of his life. This is a conceit taken straight from the book, where the checking of the watch deliniates the chapters, and beautifully divides the scenes into manageable chunks, stopping the audience from losing track, and preventing them from forgetting that something awful is going to happen when six o’clock comes.

Introducing the characters from his childhood, Hanlon employs every ounce of his considerable talent to show us Charlie (his older brother), Molly (his first love), Big Joe (his brain-damaged oldest brother), and a whole host of others. A beautiful picture is painted of perochial country life, which then lies in direct contrast to the horrors of war that are to come. It also establishes the firm bond between Tommo and Charlie; his big brother, best friend and hero.

News of the war finally makes it to Devon, and the young men are encouraged to enlist in the army and do their part for their country. Charlie decides to sign up, and Tommo is right behind him - despite being four years younger than the age required to enlist. The boys pretend to be twins, and the recruiters, not really caring, allow fifteen-year-old Tommo to join up. From this point on the heady days of haymaking, poaching and skinny-dipping are forgotten as the boys are thrust into a war that noone, least of all them, is prepared for.

The simple set of a backdrop and an old-fashioned bed are cleverly used to root the audience in Peaceful’s present, constantly remind the us that we are watching flashbacks. The bed also becomes the trench, with Hanlon folding back the mattress and peering through the wire, and lighting and sound also complimenting the piece.

Aimed at audiences from eight years up, it was heartening to see the younger members of the audience so enthralled and never seeming unsettled. This may seem unsurprising given that the book was written for this age group, but the sad nature of the piece made me wonder how they would cope. I needed have worried, however, as each child was rapt. Private Peaceful is without a doubt the best show I’ve seen this festival: funny, subtle, and extremely moving, with Hanlon giving a performance that can only be described as a tour-de-force.

Udderbelly’s Pasture, 6-31 Aug (not 17), 14:00 (15:15), prices vary.
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