Audience will not leave unaffected

Andy Daniel in title role of Private Peaceful - photo 2 by Jonathan Keen... SUS-141023-092227001
Andy Daniel in title role of Private Peaceful - photo 2 by Jonathan Keen... SUS-141023-092227001

It may leave you moved, angry, emotionally winded. But you cannot watch Private Peaceful – at the Devonshire Park Theatre earlier this week – and walk away unaffected.

While War Horse is his better known work, Michael Morpurgo has created in Private Peaceful a more sensitive, and arguably more human, perspective on the First World War.

It is the story of one young soldier and the outrageous fateful hand which he is dealt, dying in front of a firing squad.

In young soldier Tommo’s cell during the night before execution, Andy Daniel achingly lives out the timeline of his brief life. It is by turns endearing, funny, exciting, dramatic and ultimately devastating.

The beauty of theatre is that no two live performances are the same. This reviewer saw Private Peaceful at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, but in a huge and rather soulless venue. It did work, but in a rather different way – alone on stage Andy Daniel had cut a lonely, isolated figure, exposed to all that war threw at him.

In the close, intimate setting of the Devonshire Park, everything seemed more personal. Tommo was no longer the remote symbolic figure. Now he was close enough to be everyone’s son, brother, mate; and all that he went through, we experienced with him, pace for pace.

There was a notable mix of ages across the audience, from twelve-year-olds to their grandparents. How heartening to see compelling live theatre captivating our young people!

Daniel plays all parts with remarkable stamina – he even spends the interval curled exhausted on his bed, which is the only object on set. Some people may sniff at one-man shows, but Daniel’s physicality and range of voice give authentic life to every single person in his story, from crabby schoolmistress to barking army sergeant. It is a simply outstanding piece of acting.

In this Centenary year, historians and documentary makers have done plenty of dissecting – and even excusing – the politics and diplomacy of the conflict, and its human cost. And every excuse is undermined by the simple tragic truth of Private Peaceful.