‘Private Peaceful’ by Michael Morpurgo: An Actor’s Review

A review of Sodbury Player’s production of ‘Private Peaceful’

It hardly feels like a week since the curtain fell for the final time on Sodbury Player’s production of ‘Private Peaceful’. Several members of the cast, including myself, have expressed a deep sense of loss after finishing this show that goes beyond the normal ‘post-show blues’. Be advised, this review contains spoilers.

 

‘Private Peaceful’ is a novel by Michael Morpurgo, author of ‘War Horse’. He tells the story of two brothers, Tommo and Charlie Peaceful, and how their lives are torn apart by the outbreak of war. Having both fallen in love with their childhood friend, Molly, their relationship is put to the test when Molly becomes pregnant with Charlie’s child. When the recruiting sergeant comes to town, Tommo lies about his age and joins up along with Charlie. From there, the horrors of the Western Front push them closer together again, until the tragic conclusion of their story.

 

The stage play for an ensemble was adapted by Simon Reade, and the task of directing our production was taken up by the wonderfully talented duo that is Ross Brown and Maggie Allsopp. The cast itself consisted of over thirty performers, with several people (myself included) taking on multiple roles. Lots of rapid costumes changes were involved! The set was minimal and lighting was used to incredible effect, along with many dramatic sequences placed into the play by the directors to ease transitions between scenes.

 

The play starts with Tommo (played by Sam Frankcom in his stunning debut leading a show) in a cell. Tommo acts as a kind of narrator, taking the audience through memories of his childhood in Devon all the way up to the events in 1916 which led to the death of his brother, Charlie (powerfully played by Ross Arnott). Each scene is almost self contained, acting as an individual memory. It was the inspired imagination of our directors that allowed the scenes to flow into each other to create the overall story. The story, as I’ll soon make clear, was central to all our efforts as a company.

 

Michael Morpurgo has never been one to shy away from the aspects of history that some would rather not discuss. The fact that the British army shot more of their own men than any other nation during the First World War, for example. These men were executed by firing squad for perceived cowardice, desertion and some for simply sleeping at their posts. The term that was coined after the war was ‘shell shock’, but let me be blunt. These men were traumatised. Over the last hundred years we have slowly come to recognise this, the British government only granting these men posthumous pardons in 2006. Overwhelmed by a horrific conflict, the scale of which had never been seen before at that time, these men should have received support and care. Instead, the seemingly obvious course of action for the time was to brand them cowards and have them shot.

 

This was a mentality that I had to do my utmost to get across onstage. In the first act I had three different roles, but after the interval I only had one to contend with. Sergeant ‘Horrible’ Hanley. We first see him during Tommo and Charlie’s basic training, where the Sergeant takes a dislike to Charlie for his apparent lack of discipline and proceeds to make an example of him, shouting and bawling at every opportunity. He also attempts to get to Charlie through Tommo, punishing Tommo with laps around the parade ground. When Tommo collapses and Charlie rushes to help his brother, Hanley loses it big time and has Charlie tied to the wheel of a gun carriage. As you can no doubt tell, Hanley is not a pleasant person.

 

In discussing the character of Hanley, it was clear to myself and the directors that he was a professional soldier of the time. Many soldiers would have resented the necessity of bringing in raw recruits, men and indeed boys who otherwise would not have been suited to army life. We decided that in his view, Hanley was being tough on these new recruits in an attempt to toughen them up, for he knew better than most just what kind of horrors were ahead of them. I took the view that while these were Hanley’s motives, he attached no sentimentality to these new recruits. He was a soldier and a soldier can die at any moment. That was his reality. A soldier also obeys orders, and to be faced with a soldier who disobeyed orders flew in the face of Hanley’s reality.

 

We now get to the crux of the story. During an attack, Tommo is badly injured. Charlie manages to pull him into a crater, where one of their friends, Pete, another soldier and Sergeant Hanley are taking shelter. When the signal comes to advance and press the attack, Hanley jumps to his feet, expecting the others to follow. When they do not, he is infuriated. When Charlie Peaceful pipes up and explains that he will not leave his brother behind, Hanley is apoplectic. He makes it clear to Charlie that failure to obey his orders will mean death by firing squad, but when this fails to motivate Charlie, Hanley contemplates shooting Charlie himself. In our production, I actually point my rifle at young Ross Arnott, and the looks of fear on Ross and Sam’s faces are gripping. This, however, is not the end.

 

Hanley leaves them in the crater, where Charlie stays to look after his brother and makes him promise to look after Molly should the worst happen. Hanley survives the attack and returns to the crater to take Charlie into custody. The scene smoothly transitions back to the cell, only now it’s Charlie’s cell. The audience has been led to believe that it is Tommo facing the firing squad, when all along he has been contemplating the fate of his beloved brother. There is an intense scene between the two as they have their final conversation, superbly acted by both Sam and Ross.

 

In the original script, an unnamed guard comes to take Charlie away offstage, gives the order and gunshots are heard, all offstage. Our directors were having none of that. Firstly they had Hanley be the one to lead Charlie away and take him to a post at the centre of the stage. I have no shame in admitting that from technical rehearsal onwards, having to physically wrench Charlie and Tommo away from each other broke my heart, so powerful were Sam and Ross’ performances. However, my character had to remain stone-hearted. For him, this was another day at the office. Another coward who needed to be made an example of.

 

We staged the entire execution there onstage. I offer Charlie a blindfold, then shrug when he refuses. I then pin a white square of fabric to his shirt. A target over his heart. I then march away and await my cue to give the order. “Present. Ready. Aim. Fire”. Four words. Four little words that, for me, were harder to deliver onstage than any lengthy monologue. These would have been the last words these men heard.

 

At the end, every member of the cast joins us onstage. As we turn to face Charlie, the Last Post is played. Then, ever so slowly, poppies begin to fall from the ceiling. The feedback we had from the audience every night was overwhelming, and every last bit of praise for our cast and team was well deserved. We truly bonded during this production, coming together to tell a powerful story that needed to be told.

 

I am aware that it is overwhelmingly easy to look back and judge the mentality of the past. Issues such as mental health and trauma simply weren’t discussed. It wasn’t part of the national identity. However, the fact remains that we, as a nation, shot over 300 men and then effectively dismissed their deaths for decades afterwards. As I said, these men were traumatised. Beyond horrified by weapons, conditions and methods of warfare that had never been seen before. Technology advanced too quickly to meet a conflict that happened simply because tensions had reached a breaking point in Europe. Nations squared up to each other and formed teams, all ready for a scrap that would be over by Christmas. A scrap that lasted four years and cost millions of lives.

 

We honour the fallen and rightly so, and I am grateful for the fact that we now acknowledge and honour the men who fell at our own hands.

Alternative Triple Threat?

Reviewing all my creative endeavours of the last month!

Firstly, apologies for the lateness of this blog. November started off fabulously, carried on spectacularly, but then ended with a lousy bout of flu. My intention has always been to write at least one a month, so hopefully I’ll be able to catch up.

 

Now, to the matter at hand. November. Always an exciting month for me as my birthday happens to fall just short of the end of it. Truth be told, I didn’t feel a tremendous amount of excitement for said birthday this year. Maybe it’s one of the pitfalls of passing the 30 year mark, but I’m choosing to believe it was simply because I had so much on last month that my own birthday had to take a back seat.

 

Yes, last month was a whirlwind of creative activity for me. Writing, acting and even directing. I’m calling it the ‘alternative triple threat’, because the traditional definition does not apply to me. I have yet to come across the singing coach that has the patience to tackle my voice and sheer state of tone deafness. Plus, being as tall as I am, keeping my balance when walking is hard enough let alone while trying to dance.

 

November began with the Sodbury Player’s fringe event, ‘One Night Stand’, an evening of comedy sketches performed at Old Sodbury Hall. This was a marvelous event and a great deal of fun for all involved. When it was first proposed, I immediately submitted some comedy sketches that I had written myself for consideration. Discussions for established sketches were already well underway, but I have to admit, the chance to premiere my own attempts at comedic writing was too tempting to resist.

 

Class
Rob Creer, Tim Ball and myself in our rendition of ‘The Class Sketch’.

As I’ve said before, handing your own creative work over to someone else can be scary. It can be ten times as scary when that work is intended to be humorous. What makes one person laugh so hard they’re physically sick may only make another person chuckle. Worst of all for a writer is having a joke or a line fall flat on its face entirely. However, I submitted my sketch anyway. A short, two page deal involving two people. A classic ‘shopkeeper and customer’ set up. The focus of the sketch? The fact that the customer’s pumpkin was not a cucumber.

 

I was extremely glad to enlist Lin Bowden and Nicky Shipton, two wonderful actresses within Sodbury Players, to take on this sketch. Their wealth of performing experience brought the sketch to life, along with some directorial input from Rob Creer, Sodbury Player’s chairperson. We rehearsed the relatively short sketch a few times, I provided basic props (chief of which being the pumpkin) and we were ready to go.

 

Rather absurdly, when the time came on the night for the sketch, I was in the makeshift backstage area of Old Sodbury Hall, also known as the kitchen. It hadn’t quite dawned on me that the rest of the cast were out behind the audience, watching the show. I was out of sight, running over my lines of another sketch while also preparing to host the Improv section of the show (more on that later). Only myself and Mr. Grant McCotter were in the kitchen. Luckily I could hear precisely how our pumpkin sketch was going. A few titters here and there on some lines, but the final kicker at the end delivered mighty guffaws from the audience. As Grant will attest, I was punching the air in celebration backstage. I remain immensely grateful to Lin and Nicky for their hard work and brilliant delivery of my sketch.

 

That’s the writing aspect of the alternative triple threat covered, but let us go off on the promised tangent regarding Improv. The role of hosting the improv games in the second act was pretty much dumped in my lap a few hours before the show was due to start. Making things up as I go along has never been my strong point. I knew I wouldn’t be expected to perform in any of the games, but acting as a host requires making observational banter and jokes. How our wonderful compere for the entire evening, Mr. James Murden (who gave my sketch a lovely introduction) does it is beyond me. I managed to work out an opening joke, something about the points system for the games being akin to Donald Trump’s presidency, then hoped that everything would flow from there. Turns out, it did!

 

It seems that hosting is a performance all in itself. You’re playing yourself, only bigger, more direct. As someone who has chiefly relied on script and rehearsals in the past, it was quite refreshing to discover that I could make a go of hosting even to a small degree. Perhaps that can be added to the alternative triple threat, making it an alternative 3.5 threat? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?

 

So, as November progressed after a hilarious night of comedy, I began another first for me. Directing. The third prong in the alternative triple threat. I am currently directing the Sodbury Player’s entry for the Bristol One Act Drama Festival next February. With the support of our amazing group I am slowly discovering what it takes to steer a cast. It certainly isn’t about throwing your weight around, trying to make out you know everything. The message I’m getting loud and clear is that a good director works with their actors, discussing the characters and situations with them. A good director is willing to try new things, taking on board the suggestions of the actors. There are times, of course, when the director has to make a decision or two, but only when it benefits the production as a whole. I have a fantastic cast and rehearsals are going very well indeed!

 

Let us now return, in a roundabout way, to the second prong of the alternative triple threat. Acting. Taking on a character myself and interacting with others is always a great joy. In my opinion acting is very much like sex, the more people that are involved, the more fun it is.

 

Thanks to Rob Creer and Melody Lewis, I had two opportunities to take on two comedic roles very close to my heart. The first being Private Pike from ‘Dad’s Army’, a show I’ve loved ever since I was six. The second, Officer Crabtree from ‘Allo Allo’.

 

 

Dad's Army
Julian Hinton as Corporal Jones, myself as Private Pike, Tim Ball as Captain Mainwaring and Simon Carney as Sergeant Wilson. Photo courtesy of Stage Style Costumes.

 

I was asked many months ago if I’d consider playing these two roles at a pair of 1940’s themed events. After a few rehearsals at the pub and a costume fitting, I was as ready to join this brilliant group as I’d ever be. I’ve been watching ‘Dad’s Army’ for years, yet still found that taking on a character I thought I knew so well wasn’t going to be easy.

“Make the voice higher, David …more whiny.”

However, I am certainly an actor that can take direction. I felt more at home playing Pike than I did Crabtree, mainly because Pike was allowed to be more expressive. Lines such as “Good moaning” and “I was pissing the coffee” have to be delivered completely dead-pan or they lose their impact. Both of these events were tremendous fun, and it is my sincere hope that we’ll be booked to do more in the future!

 

Allo Allo
Roisin Hall as Yvette, Julian Hinton as Rene, myself as Crabtree and Melody Lewis as Edith. Photo courtesy of Stage Style Costumes.

 

All of these events, both singular an ongoing, came together to make November a truly special month for me. Never before have I been able to combine so many things that I love doing, nor indeed do so with such a talented group. I have learnt and continue to learn a great deal about writing, acting and directing. That’s what life is all about, really. Being willing to accept that there is always more for you to learn.

 

To expand and to grow. That is what makes it all worthwhile.