Man holding lamp in the dark listening to a watch

What should be a historical warning about the futility of war feels all to current in the present circumstances, as Theatre Royal Norwich hosts this reimagined version of Michael Morpugo’s Private Peaceful.

The children’s novel has previously been adapted by Simon Reade a number of times, with the current incarnation taking the form of a seven-strong ensemble piece.

At the core is Daniel Rainford as the titular Private ‘Tommo’ Peaceful, and his older brother Charlie, played by Daniel Boyd.

We see their childhood days in Devon, the accidental death of their father – which triggers a cruel chain of events reminding us of the near-feudal conditions of early 20th century England – and the onset of the First World War, with both boys signing up to fight despite Tommo being just 16.

Emma Manton supports ably as their mother and a string of miscellaneous character, with Liyah Summers as the boy’s dual love interest, Molly. The piece mixes in snippets of song and movement within the dramatic action, and Summers voice is particularly strong.

Man and woman talking with people sat a table in the background
Tom Kanji, Emma Manton, Daniel Boyd in Private Peaceful – Feb 2022 © Nottingham Playhouse (Photo Manuel Harlan)

Lucy Sierra’s set and Matt Haskin’s lighting switch us rapidly between bucolic Devon and the bombardments of the trenches, with wisps of metal doubling for tree branches and barbed wire, as the fractured narrative counts us down towards the deathly sentence of a firing squad.

The production is strong overall, although I would have preferred the colour blind casting of Summers to extend to the actors’ accents, which wane unconvincingly in places. With most of the adults playing children at some point and a symbolic set, we’re ready to suspend disbelief; the mock farmer drawl isn’t really necessary.

Reade’s adaption is well considered and more faithful to the book than his solo version. However, the characters are symbols rather than particularly richly drawn individuals – particularly the predictably cruel or inept officers. The point it makes is no less true though, and no less upsetting. We see too much of the same waste in Ukraine today, with fresh generations being scarred by war.

What it doesn’t offer is answers; but who has those?

  • Private Peaceful continues at Theatre Royal Norwich until 18 June. 50p from every ticket sold is being donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.