There are so many complex things that make the First World uniquely terrible, compared to the other great catastrophes of the 20th century. The absolute destruction of the natural world and of the old 19th century ideals of honorable war, at the hands brutal new technology. Young men lying about their age to join a conflict, seduced by promises of glory, of having a purpose, only to discover how disposable they are to their superiors who seem willfully tone deaf to the senselessness of the slaughter. Towns losing a dozen of their young men to just one shell. Volumes of books, dozens of films, hundreds of hours of television have attempted to make sense of it all.. The stage version of Private Peaceful manages to encapsulate so much of what I described above in just 90 minutes.
This isn’t the first time director/adapter Reade has adapted Michael Morpurgo’s novel. In fact, it’s not even the first time he’s adapted it to stage, and it shows in how crisp, unfussy and streamlined the central story is. For this adaptation, the massive number of incidental characters are all performed by Tommo Peaceful as he takes stock of his life before he’s shot at dawn for insubordination. This piece would live or die based on how its solo performer handles the emotional wringer.
Good thing it’s Shane O’Regan doing it then; he eases us through Tommo’s sweet, heartbreak filled childhood with tenderness and care, and saves the real intensity for the nightmarish moments where the trenches are shelled. And even then, the naive tenderness we have before becomes this melancholy and sad wonder at just how utterly small he is, just one more scared young man among millions. O’Regan is a phenomenal storyteller and performer, and all the myriad characters are instantly, utterly clear. (Props to Gavin O’Donoghue’s dialect coaching and Sue Mythen’s movement direction.)
The set is minimal, a bed that O’Regan orbits around before transforming it into the terrifying wire mesh he views no man’s land through. It – and him – are dwarfed by the space and Anshuman Bhatia’s stark lighting, and it really makes you feel like this is only one story among millions of other stories of heartbreak and lost potential. And that makes it all the more powerful.