REVIEW (From a distance): Private Peaceful (The Barn Theatre)

Less than a week after our last glowing review, here we are singing the praises of The Barn Theatre once more. (Somebody really needs to invent some new superlatives so we have something new to say!) Hot on the heels of their streamed production of Michael Morpurgo’s An Elephant in the Garden (which we also loved when we watched it a couple of weeks ago) comes another Michael Morpurgo adaptation. After a run at The Barn’s outdoor theatre festival BarnFest (where we had an awesome time last August) BoxLess Theatre’s production of Private Peaceful was the first show to play indoors at The Barn when theatres reopened last year, before returning to its original home at Bristol Old Vic. It was also due to transfer into the West End in the Autumn but Covid had other ideas. Thankfully it has returned for a digital run instead. We gave it a watch during the week and can safely say that this is a show that you won’t want to miss.

Set during World War I, Private Peaceful tells the story of Private Tommo Peaceful (Emily Costello), a Word War I soldier looking back on his life from his school days to the trenches, as he awaits the firing squad at dawn. A harrowing yet hopeful two-hander, Simon Reade’s adaptation (directed by Alexander Knott) successfully conveys the horrors of war and the injustices faced by so many young men during World War I. Aimed at older children (we’d suggest secondary school onwards), it is rather darker than An Elephant in the Garden (which is set in Germany during World War II), taking a gritty look at life in the trenches and sharing the human side of history in a way that no textbook ever could. And though it may be based on a children’s book, this is very much a play that will appeal to young people and adults alike.

Emily Costello in Private Peaceful. Photo credit: Eve Dunlop

It’s easy to see why this was chosen for a West End transfer. It’s a truly sensational show in every sense, fusing storytelling, movement and music to create an evocative experience that draws the audience into Tommo’s world. Emily Costello is superb as the protagonist, bringing a youthful innocence to the character and encapsulating the experience of so many young (not quite) men, who found themselves on the front line. Her performance is captivating, and she could easily command the stage alone were this a single-hander (as it is sometimes performed) but this production is all the better for the depth provided by James Demaine who plays Tommo’s brother Charlie alongside a whole host of other characters (and instruments!) It works brilliantly as a two-hander because although the story may be Tommo’s to tell, the focus is very much on his relationships with others. The bond between the brothers is central to the story and, although Covid restrictions mean the pair never actually touch, the fantastic movement direction from Zöe Grain makes them feel incredibly close.

Emily Costello and James Demaine in Private Peaceful. Photo credit: Eve Dunlop

Music also plays an important part in this production, with Harry Smith’s sound design encapsulating both the chaos of war and the connection between the characters. The incorporation of musical instruments into the action could feel gimmicky but it is done seamlessly and really adds to the atmosphere. Lighting design is often not paid particular attention in reviews, including ours, not because we don’t think it’s important but because it is an artform on which we don’t feel particularly qualified to comment. Suffice it to say that Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner’s lighting design has a real, noticeable impact in this production. From a stunning stained glass window in a church to the frightening flashes of enemy attack in the trenches, and the shadowy cell from where the narrative unfolds, the lighting sets the scene at every stage of the story, including the heartbreaking ending.

Emily Costello and James Demaine in Private Peaceful. Photo credit: Eve Dunlop

Although its in-person run may have been cut tragically short by Covid, we are sure that Private Peaceful will make a triumphant return to the West End stage, hopefully with the same fantastic cast. In the meantime, we strongly recommend grabbing yourself a digital ticket for this captivating and poignant production.

Private Peaceful is playing digitally at The Barn Theatre from 19 April to 2 May 2021. We received complimentary press access to review the production.