For Email Marketing you can trust

Private Peaceful

Shane O'Regan in Private Peaceful.(c) Ahron R. Foster


Private Peaceful


                                        By Ron Cohen


The senseless destruction and horrors of war – and in this particular case, World War I, the catastrophe erroneously labeled “the war to end all wars” -- have been well documented. But when the focus is narrowed down to show the impact on one relatable human being, it all becomes worth the retelling.


That is what’s accomplished in the 80 minutes or so that Irish actor Shane O’Regan magnetically holds the stage in the one-person drama Private Peaceful.  The script is based on the 2003 young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo, whose other works include War Horse, widely known for both its theatrical version and the Steven Spielberg-directed film.


The stage adaptation of Private Peaceful by Simon Reade premiered in 2004 at the Bristol Old Vic and has proven itself in various mountings throughout the UK.  Reade also wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film and directed this current production, which began touring in Ireland last year.


O’Regan brings the title character, whose full name is Tommo Peaceful, to vibrant, often ebullient life. There are also sharply drawn sketches of a gallery of other folks who come into the brief span of his days.


As the audience enters the theater, Tommo is seen in semi-darkness lying on a bunk, which together with an abstract backdrop are the only pieces of scenery. When he sits up, it’s evident that he’s inordinately conscious of the time.


“I have the whole night ahead of me,” he says. “I shan’t sleep. I won’t dream it away… I’ve had nearly eighteen years of yesterdays and tomorrows, and tonight I must remember as many of them as I can.”


And indeed he does, sharing them vividly with the audience. He starts with his childhood in England’s farm country. An early trauma is the death of his father, who worked as a forester for the area’s wealthy and pompous landowner. There are times darkened by the rigor and unjustness of a strict and class-conscious society. Yet there are also idyllic days shared with his loving and protective older brother Charlie and the young woman Molly, who has both of them in her thrall and e eventually marries Charlie.



When the war comes, a conscience-stricken Charlie decides to join the army. “I’ve seen the lists in the paper – y’know, all the killed and the wounded…,” he says. “It hardly seems right, does it: me being here, enjoying life, while they’re over there.” And when he does sign up, the underage Tommo is at his side, with the two pretending they are twins.



When they arrive at the war’s front in Belgium, the early enemies – rather than the Germans or “Fritz” as they are called -- are the rats, the lice and the unending rain flooding the trenches. But the battles and bombardments begin, with both brothers finding themselves in acts that are filled with fear, gallantry and service, But eventually, as Tommo relates his story, we learn that he is to face a firing squad at dawn. He has been found guilty of “cowardice in the face of the enemy” for refusing to participate in a suicidal attack in broad daylight, unwilling to leave the fatally wounded Charlie behind. With a big offensive push in the works, Tommo feels his fate is being used as an example to keep the troops in line.


The telling of Tommo’s history is filled with grandly realized set pieces that O’Regan glides seamlessly in and out of, with just a quick change in costume or shift in voice and posture. Among them: Tommo’s first day at school when he meets Molly who teaches him how to lace up his boots; his first knowledge of the war when he hears the seductive spiel of a recruiting officer who has come to round up troops in a rural village; the nighttime mission when Charlie and Tommo accompany an officer to capture a prisoner and bring him back to gain information, and the grotesque effects of a poison gas attack.


Even with the occasional exuberant athleticism of the performance, however, little smacks of an actorly tour de force. While his rural English dialect may take some getting used to, in O’Regan’s hands, Tommo becomes an actual person desperate to recount the days of his life and the value of them before they end in an unjust death. And with O’Regan’s intensity, Reade’s staging, Anshuman Bhatia’s lighting design and Jason Barnes’ sound, the trenches and the battlefields become a virtual reality.


Still, Private Peaceful is more than a reminder of the nightmares of war. It also is an affirmation of the worth of life, and yes, even the life of one ordinary country boy turned soldier before his time.


Review posted September 2018

Off-Broadway play

Playing at the TBG Mainstage Theatre

312 West 36th Street

Playing until October 7