Since its premiere in the studio space of Bristol Old Vic nearly two years ago Simon Reade’s adaptation of this story by former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo has toured, played the Edinburgh Fringe and already had one substantial London outing before this. Morpurgo, like Philip Pullman, has the gift of tackling subjects of importance and profundity without either condescending to children nor alienating adults. In this case, his subject is war, and the pity of war: 17-year-old Private Tommo Peaceful, awaiting execution for cowardice on the First World War battlefield, spends his final night reminiscing on his short life.
Tommo grew up in an idyllic Mummerset: actor Alexander Campbell’s West Country accent is prey to the intrusive R, so that the older Tommo dresses in kharki, disembarks at Bourlogne and even anticipates being shot at dorn. Tommo is also not the sharpest knife in the drawer: it feels overwritten when this always childlike figure uses words such as “ungainly” or “nothingness”, or speaks of “deadly tendrils” of poison gas.
But these are cavils; Morpurgo, Reade (who also directs) and Campbell together create a plausible adolescent growing up with his idolised brother Charlie and adored neighbour Molly, too naïve to see that Charlie and Molly are becoming sexually involved but, when realisation does come, not excluded from their steadfast triangular friendship. When the brothers join the army together (lying that they are twins to conceal Tommo’s being under enlistment age) and are sent to Flanders, the writing economically, unsensationally evokes the reality both of the squalid quotidian and the insanity of combat, until the final minutes reveal that Tommo’s “cowardice” consisted of staying with his wounded brother rather than following a psychopathic sergeant on a suicidal charge.
Morpurgo is consciously addressing Britain’s refusal to follow other nations in posthumously pardoning its soldiers executed under such circumstances: Tommo is his “unknown soldier”, a contrast to officers such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon who were hospitalised for shell-shock rather than put before a firing squad. A grand narrative would be counter-productive; indeed, this production is so modest that, on the night I saw it, Campbell even refrained from taking the second curtain call which the audience’s applause urged.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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