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Review: Private Peaceful, Newcastle Theatre Royal until today

This is a wonderfully moving show and we couldn’t let it go without a few words of commendation, even though today’s 11am performance is the last before it continues its tour

****
Paul Chequer in Private Peaceful
Paul Chequer in Private Peaceful

This is a wonderfully moving show and we couldn’t let it go without a few words of commendation, even though today’s 11am performance is the last before it continues its tour.

Yesterday I joined a rapt audience of schoolchildren and a fair few older people and left with a lump in my throat.

Michael Morpurgo’s book, published in 2003 (more than 20 years after War Horse), is about a First World War soldier waiting to be shot for cowardice.

Simon Reade adapted it for the stage and it premiered in Bristol the following year.

This tour, of course, coincides with the centenary of the start of the war and it is a useful introduction to all its horrors for a new generation.

But it is much more than theatre-in-education.

Paul Chequer, alone on stage throughout, plays Private ‘Tommo’ Peaceful not as an archetype of the First World War ‘Tommy’ but as a real and very likeable human being.

As the hours and minutes tick towards dawn and the fatal bullet, Private Peaceful reflects aloud on his life.

And what a short life it has been!

Tommo took the king’s shilling at just 17, his older brother Charlie having lied that they were twins, only to face execution on a trumped up charge.

This is a young man, patently a good and honest young man, who saw his father die in a work accident and now has endured all the horrors of the trenches.

He is to die because he defied a bullying sergeant’s vindictive and suicidal order to comfort his dying brother – and to be made an example of in the run-up to the Somme offensive.

It is one of the small personal tragedies hidden within the great tragedy of the First World War.

Playing Tommo’s childhood self with apparent ease, Chequer, on a simple set decorated only with the prisoner’s metal bed, makes us think hard about the blameless lives shattered by the 1914-18 bloodbath.

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