The Horrors and Heroism of War Come Face-to-Face in Private Peaceful
Inspired by a Michael Morpurgo novel, this solo drama returns to New York City.
Simon Reade has made a cottage industry out of adapting Michael Morpurgo's young adult novel Private Peaceful. Reade first turned the book into a one-man show in the early 2000s (playing 59E59 in 2006). In 2012, he brought the material to the big screen, writing and coproducing a film version. A few years later, he expanded his vision of the stage property, adapting it for the full ensemble of London's National Youth Theatre.
It's easy to see why the writer and director is attracted to the material. Private Peaceful is a multifaceted coming-of-age story set during World War I, where a young man stands up for his beliefs, even though it may mean paying the ultimate price. His solo show version, now running at the TBG Mainstage after touring Ireland, is a dramatic challenge for a single actor, but Shane O'Regan is more than up to the task.
The work recounts the life of Thomas "Tommo" Peaceful, from Tommo's own perspective. Tommo recounts the youthful adventures he had with his older brother, Charlie, with whom he was so close that they even fell in love with the same woman. He relives the painful events that led to their father's untimely passing, which may have inadvertently been Tommo's fault. And he recalls the fateful, life-altering decision to enlist in during World War I because Charlie did, too. But soon, Tommo must gather his inner strength as he confronts the notions of cowardice and heroism in the face of potential tragedy.
The scope of O'Regan's performance is impressive to watch. Over the course of the 80-minute piece, the Irish actor adopts two dozen different voices and physicalities to portray all 24 characters. His work is masterfully skilled and technically precise, but it's also vibrantly alive. He creates unique portrayals and tics for every person featured: huffing and puffing as blustery army colonels; hunching over as a "toothless old woman", whose cries of "chicken" taunt Tommo into enlisting; and Tommo himself, the sensitive soul whose fateful decision to put family first sets the course of the rest of his life.
Reade's production is swift, and he really knows how to raise the suspense. Anshuman Bhatia's lighting creates menacing shadows on the theater's bare walls, and Bhatia's nondescript set —a simple bed and a backdrop — effortlessly becomes a bedroom, barbed wire fence, and prison cell with slight shifts in location. We never know what will happen next, and that feeling leads to a shocking final moment.
Simplicity is the name of the game in Private Peaceful, the polar opposite of the last New York production of a work by Morpurgo, the large-scale spectacle War Horse. Sometimes, though, all you need is one exceptional actor and a resourceful script to bring the fireworks to the stage.