Review: Private Peaceful (Barn Theatre)

If you liked War Horse, chances are you will appreciate Private Peaceful.

A co-production from BoxLess Theatre and the Barn Theatre, and adapted from the novel by Michael Morpugo, this is the story of Private Thomas Peaceful (Emily Costello, the first female performer to play the role professionally).

Tommo is a country boy who joins up for the Great War by lying about his age, seduced by the promise of adventure and the sting of cowardice. His older brother Charlie is the other main character, always present.

In the role of Charlie and all the other characters, James Demaine pushes the story forward in a variety of vignettes, and contributes original music. Alexander Knott directs with flair and drive.

Emily Costello in Private Peaceful

This play should have been in the West End last year, where it would have seen debuts for Costello and Demaine, but finally seeing it in a digital form is the next best thing. Hopefully the production gets its well-deserved transfer in due course.

Costello is luminous in the title role, from playing Tommo as a child through to his war service. He tells us his life story from the trenches, of his childhood with brothers Joe and Charlie, and the girl he becomes fond of, Molly, building up to an ending which will wring out your heart.

Highlighting the futility and injustice of war, Private Peaceful has a depth of feeling throughout its script and music which brings the audience right into the story. Authority figures are lightly lampooned, and the country life of “six generations of Peacefuls” is coming to a close.

Emily Costello and James Demaine in Private Peaceful

The set is filled with the minutiae of daily life, lit scene by scene as required – with just a suggestion of house, schoolyard, farm, trenches. The attack of gas, the fear of the sixteen-year old thrown into horror, the devastating ending.

Music is central to Private Peaceful, just as it was in War Horse, this time songs from conflict, and of calm and courage. It is the eve of the Somme battle, and Private Tommo has promises to keep.

Zoe Grain contributes the movement direction that is so crucial to this piece. Simon Reade’s adaptation encapsulates the novel into a 63-minute piece of raw power and unstinting energy. The sound design (Harry Smith) and lighting (Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner) is essential and atmospheric.

James Demaine and Emily Costello in Private Peaceful

Filmed in front of an audience at the Barn Theatre last September, in that brief moment when theatres could throw open their doors again, Private Peaceful is an enthusiastic production on all fronts, and highly recommended.

Private Peaceful is suitable for older children to view, and tells its story well. It is now streaming at the Barn Theatre, until 2 May 2021: book here for 24 hour access to the show.

Image credit: Eve Dunlop

LouReviews received complimentary access to review Private Peaceful.