Michael Morpurgo classic Private Peaceful hits the stage

Private Peaceful – which tours to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, from May 23 to 28 in a stage adaptation by Simon Reade of Michael Morpurgo’s celebrated book – was supposed to hit the stage in early 2020.

Members of the company in Private Peaceful - Feb 2022 © Nottingham Playhouse (Photo Manuel Harlan)
Members of the company in Private Peaceful - Feb 2022 © Nottingham Playhouse (Photo Manuel Harlan)

Everything has changed since then. And though director Elle While says the piece would certainly have resonated pre-pandemic, she believes it does so all the more now given all that we have been through.

It tells of the Peaceful brothers, Tommo and Charlie, who have a tough rural childhood as they face the loss of their father, financial hardship and a cruel landlord. Their fierce loyalty to each other pulls them through until one day they both fall for the same girl. And then the Great War comes...

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“This is the third attempt to put it on in two years,” Elle says. “I was involved right from the start. Nottingham Playhouse got me involved in 2019 and when we were first stopped, obviously it was heart-breaking.

“I said to them on the first day of rehearsals back then in 2020 that we’ve got to think about why we keep going back to these war stories and I said maybe it was because we had not had a global catastrophe since. I came back to that on the first day of rehearsals this time round and thought ‘Well, we have had that now!’ Of course it’s not remotely the same thing but there are certainly parallels that make it feel more relevant than ever.

“We’ve got four actors from before and the production has definitely grown in the meantime. It has had more oxygen breathed into it, but we’ve got the two brothers still with us and we have done some fantastic work with them. It’s almost like the heart of the play is still the same in terms of the cast, and we have got some fantastic people. It’s a play that is really in two halves. The first half is really joyful and celebrating community and love and then the second half plunges us into the darkness of World War One.

“And I do think both halves will resonate even more now. We have all really found that need for community, that need for family and that need for love in a way that’s been even more present in our lives, and then of course there has been the devastation. As we have been rehearsing I think everyone in the room feels so much more moved by what these young people went through. They were separated from their loved ones and I think that’s easier to understand for us now after all that we’ve been through, and I just think that feels so much closer to our own experience now. And I think we have just all arrived at it with thinner skins now.

“I always thought that it was very resonant anyway. I have got children and I know it’s a story that really speaks to them. Michael Morpurgo talks about the fact that lots of war stories tend to be seen from the perspective of the officer class. This is a story about ordinary people, and that is much easier to relate to.”