With the audience greeted at the door by WWI Sergeant Major Ben Pearson and Privates Alfie Dackcombe and Hugh Stott the scene was set for the Lower School’s production of Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful.

Two Devon brothers, Tommo and Charlie Peaceful, growing up in rural Devon both fall for the same girl before signing up for military duty in a war whose horrors they could not have imagined.  Private Tommo Peaceful, a young First World War soldier is awaiting the firing squad at dawn for desertion.  During the night he relieves his short but vivid past:  from his terrifying first day at school, the accident in the forest that killed his father, late-night poaching with Molly, the love of his life and the battles and injustice of war that has brought him to the front line and the dramatic and heart wrenching conclusion.

The scenes set in Flanders were powerful.  Jacob Browne as old Tommo, conveyed his heavy heart and the horror of the war by delivering his dialogue in sombre and uneasy manner, his nervous pacing conveying fear for his future.  Emily Throckmorton gave us an assured performance as kind Captain Wilkes, as did Lily Aldridge, playing the sneering Colonel, exuding military authenticity in her stance, tone and expression. 

An energetic and commanding performance from the disciplined Sergeant Major Tommy Park barking orders and stirring his troops to action and the bullying Will Robinson as ‘Horrible Hanley’ conjured a picture for the audience of the brutal life of a WWI soldier.

The carefree, guileless air of Issy Morris playing the Pilot was wonderful to watch and the nascent love affair between Tommo and Anna, the Estiminet owner’s daughter played by Maddie Nickoll was gentle and convincing.  Later scenes in the play saw Honor Petit as Pete, with her dejected, defeated air illustrating the fatigue of the troops and Alex Hunter as Old Charlie conveying brilliantly the warm relationship between himself and Tommo in a touching discussion of love and war.  

Meanwhile the scenes in Devon were equally compelling. The love struck Millie Morgan as Old Molly, torn between two brothers performed her role with clarity and sincerity.   Wolfie Mowbray and Ellie Harris playing the innocent Young Tommo and Young Molly respectively, provided light relief, quaking at the thunderous voice and raging temper of Harry Cole as the awful school teacher Mr Munnings.

The uppity and mean Grandma Wolf was played to perfection by Alice Greig and a strong performance by Paige Allgrove as Molly’s Mother demonstrated her fierce loyalty to her family perfectly.

Private Peaceful moved smoothly from trench to countryside thanks to the outstanding design elements of the production.  Dimmed green lighting and smoke added to the horrors of the trench warfare portrayed so poignantly by the cast and the ghostly innocent singing of nursery rhymes off stage created a stark contrast. The pounding of the guns, the woollen army suits, the long skirts of the women all evoked the Edwardian era of a country at war.

Patterns of fighter pilots, and skipping girls moving along the long stage was incredibly effective in the long space and the moveable stage allowed the scenes to flow seamlessly.  The platoon of soldiers brilliantly moved the tone from light and innocent to dark and ominous in an instant and the scene in the trenches conveyed confusion and fear to the audience.

Emily Harris, Head of Drama and Director of the play commented “This is a play with 41 scenes and in planning it I had a light bulb moment.  I remembered the wonderful set used in Waterloo Station for “The Railway Children”, and knew it would work if I could just find a long enough space… The Sports Hall was perfect and the PE department have been very generous to allow us to use it.”

The effect of watching a young cast who were themselves only a few years off the age of many of that dreadful wars victims was undeniably powerful.   The play’s exploration of love, loss, war and courage was realised by the cast’s vibrant and compelling performance and Mrs Harris, Mrs Griffiths, Miss Simons and Mr Hill must be congratulated for directing and coordinating what was a very complex and thought provoking production.

Rick Clarke, Deputy Headmaster said “Drama is a wonderful preparation for life. I can still remember vividly all the plays I acted in at school, so I would strongly encourage the pupils involved in Private Peaceful to stay involved in drama and enjoy it. Being in a production, with all of its highs and lows, teaches you invaluable skills for life. Congratulations to all of the cast and crew for a wonderful performance.”

Review: Claire Field, Librarian