Seven years after “War Horse” appeared on Broadway, New Yorkers are getting another British stage adaptation of another young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo about the horrors of World War I. “Private Peaceful,” based on Morpurgo’s 2003 novel of the same name, has none of the elaborate stagecraft of the earlier “War Horse” – no puppet horses, almost no props or scenery, just a bed and a single human being. But it has its own, modest stage magic, thanks to actor Shane O’Regan, who portrays Tommo Peaceful and some two dozen other characters in an impressively broad range of affects and accents.
On tour in the U.S., “Private Peaceful” is running Off-Broadway at TBG Mainstage Theatre through November 7 – which is four days before the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day (now Veterans Day), marking the end of World War I.
“I have the whole night ahead of me,” Private Tommo Peaceful, 17, tells us as he climbs off his bed and the play begins. It takes a while to realize it will be his last night.
“I want to remember everything, just as it was..”
And so he takes us back a few years, to shortly after his father died, killed by a tree he was chopping down. Tommo goes to school for the first time – which gives O’Regan the opportunity to effect some of his pitch-perfect impersonations, his teachers old fusty Mr. Munnings and kindly Miss Hopkins. Tommo is so green that he hasn’t worn boots, and doesn’t know how to tie the laces. Miss Hopkins asks Molly to help him. Tommo develops an instant crush on her. He is crushed when he discovers that Molly and his older brother Charlie have fallen in love. But Tommo gets over it, because he idolizes Charlie. So much so that Tommo goes wherever Charlie goes. When Charlie goes to work as a farmhand for Farmer Cox, Tommo does too. And when Charlie signs up for the war, Tommo does too, though he is underage – Charlie tells the recruiter they’re twins.
Charlie was reluctant to enlist: “I’d shoot a rat because it might bite me. I’d shoot a rabbit because I can eat it. Why would I ever want to shoot a German?” But he’s “seen the lists” – of the dead and wounded; “it hardly seems right, does it: me being here, enjoying life, while they’re over there.”
It isn’t until halfway through the 85-minute show that Tommo is on the battlefield,putting up with the rats and lice and rain, engaged in trench warfare. At this point he has donned his uniform, blackened his face and turned the bed on its side, the bedsprings becoming barbed wire. It is a striking transformation, as the world of “Private Peaceful” turns intense and devastating: the deadly gas attacks, pointless skirmishes, scared soldiers on both sides, unfeeling lieutenants and homicidal sergeants…and then a charge of cowardice, which is why this is Tommo’s last night.
Assigning the surname Peaceful to the innocents Charlie and Tommo is not what you’d call subtle — not the only reminder that this is a story originally intended for children. At the same time, the actor’s accents and actions are not always crystal clear. Still, there is some nuanced craft in the way that director and adapter Simon Reade works with actor Shane O’Regan to present contrasting scenes of war and peace, as the essence of grace and disgrace.
TBG Mainstage Theatre
Directed and adapted by Simon Reade,
Based on the novel by Michael Marpurgo
Performed by Shane O’Regan.
Scenic and lighting design by Anshuman Bhatia,sound design by Jason Barnes, movement direction by Sue Mythen, dialect coach Gavin O’Donoghue
Running time: 85 minutes no intermission
Tickets: $25 to $79
Private Peaceful is on stage through November 7