In this adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel, Private Tommo Peaceful – played by Andy Daniel – is counting down the hours and waiting for daylight to come. Whilst the time ticks by, he tells us poignant stories from his life. Amongst many other tales, he describes his first day at school, his first love and his exploits with his protective elder brother, Charlie. He describes his first experience of seeing soldiers marching to war… and all the time, he’s glancing at the watch his brother gave him, a constant reminder of just how quickly and fatefully the time is passing.
Daniel does a great job of changing characters, from his school teachers, to Molly (the girl he loves), to the dreaded Sergeant Handley. I found a speech encouraging the boys to enlist particularly rousing; any young man would have found it hard to resist such inspiring words. And in a performance that demands high energy, Daniel keeps the action moving at an incredible pace, and is word perfect throughout.
But something is lacking. I found myself strangely unmoved by this production – a curious response, at odds with my normal reaction to the events of World War One and the dreadful slaughter that ensued. Script and direction are a little unsubtle, with too much revealed too soon, and the storyline delivered in the same loud tone most of the way through. In truth, I could distinguish little difference between the young “first day at school” Tommo and the soldier Tommo of the trenches.
And the cavernous space it’s performed in is just way too big. Even though Daniel addressed his story to the audience throughout, he felt too far away, distant and unreachable for me. In a more intimate venue, the experience could have been quite different.
What does come over, however, is that we should never lose sight of what terrible things were expected of those young heroes; the choice that Tommo had to make was no doubt seated in reality. He was a victim of the injustice and brutality of war, and stood utterly unmovable in his belief that he would do “anything to protect the people he loved” – to his cost.
I know that there is a danger of comparing stage plays with a book you have enjoyed, for you always leave yourself open to disappointment. But this production really lost something in translation for me. Others around me clearly appreciated it more, but I was left thinking that they might have done better just to read the novel.