There’s a moment in the National Youth Theatre’s production of ‘Private Peaceful’ where all you can hear is the slow, repetitive ting ting of metal hitting metal. It’s the noise of bullets puncturing helmets. That noise alone is evocative of all the fear and futility of a battle in the trenches.
There aren’t enough of these quiet, jolting moments in Paul Hart’s production of Michael Morpurgo’s WWI story. Morpurgo’s novel, adapted into an ensemble play in 2004 by Simon Reade, tells of Tommo Peaceful, who grows up in the hills of Devon with his brother, and hero, Charlie. In flashbacks, Tommo tells us about his happy and wholesome childhood adventures, and how he ended up a soldier at the front awaiting an execution at the hands of the court martial.
The ensemble cast is mostly on stage throughout, constantly moving blocks of wood, chairs and cases to create, by turns, the chaos of war and the relative peace of a rural front room. There are some nice touches to an assured production, but the constant hustle and bustle in Hart’s staging lacks poise and doesn’t leave space for the story to breathe.
The NYT’s West End season is always a showcase for the copious talent they have harvested, and this piece is no different. The focus and conviction from the 18 to 25-year-olds is striking, and there are standout performances from Stuart Wilde as Tommo and Fabian McCallum as Charlie.
Morpurgo’s tales are usually masterclasses in how to turn on the waterworks. Though this production of ‘Private Peaceful’ certainly has its weepy moments, it never tugs at the heart in the way that it could and should.