Review: Private Peaceful, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain at the Ambassadors Theatre

“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? Never even met a German”

I’m not normally in the habit of reading reviews of shows before I see them but as I wasn’t sure I’d be going to the NYToGB’s Rep Season this year, I read up on the rather miserable day that many critics seem to have had on the press day for Selfie and Private Peaceful. You wonder if their feelings about one melded into the other or maybe they really just didn’t like what was on offer. Ever the contrarian, again I didn’t find it to be anywhere near as bad as made out.

It may be that this being my first experience of Simon Reade’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel helped here, the memory of the starkly effective one man version of the show clearly lingering strongly in the minds of many. But 2012 saw a film of the story released, again scripted by Reade, so the precedent for expanding the cast has hardly been set by the company here and as a bustling tale of life both before and during the First World War for the Peaceful brothers.

Yes, it is different from a monologue. And with an ensemble of 15 fleshing out supporting roles aplenty around Tommo, Charlie and the gentle Big Joe, it is a busy world created here by Paul Hart that thus naturally aligns its focus more widely. Isobel Palmer’s movement has an expressive vision that is well served by the company in evoking the changing landscapes and Olly Fox’s music has plangent depth as family feuds get subsumed into the horrors of the battlefield and the shocking treatment of those deemed to be deserters.

Fabian McCullum and Stuart Wilde impress as Tommo and Charlie, brothers who antagonise as easily as they embrace, Ayten Manyera’s Molly as the girl between them is lovely, and Kate Kennedy stands out once again in a handful of vibrantly realised cameos. I was less keen on the narrative approach – Sam Hevicon’s older version of Tommo recounts what happened to his younger self – which inserts an emotional distance that is really felt towards the end. Maybe I’d’ve felt differently too if I’d seen the solo version but in and of itself, this is a powerful rendering of just how much the youth of a century ago had to endure, given added poignancy by the young of today.

Running time: 90 minutes
Booking until 28th November

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