Private Peaceful, Barn Theatre, Cirencester, review: a poignant, gender-flipped reminder of far harsher times

Dominic Cavendish
·2 mins read
Emily Costello in Private Peaceful at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester
Emily Costello in Private Peaceful at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester

There’s nothing quiet or theatrically tranquil about this lightning-fast, gender-flipped staging of Michael Morpurgo’s 2003 novel recounting the tragically brief life-story of a fictional 17-year-old youth court-martialled on the Western Front in 1916.

The exhilarating speed of the hour-long piece – a freefall through memory on the eve of execution, in contrast to the book’s more leisurely retrospect – reflects the theatre it has sprung from. The Barn in Cirencester keeps stealing a march on its rivals and is the first regional playhouse to open for a sustained (Covid-secure) indoor run.

The casting innovation – placing  an actress (Emily Costello) in the army boots filled in the 2012 film by George MacKay – is part and parcel of the Barn’s innate daring too. More than 330,000 people have engaged with their digital content since lockdown; they’re fearlessly 21st century. That said, my big concern going in was that this gender-blind slant on Simon Reade’s 2004 solo adaptation (further reconceived here for two players) might remove a layer of historical verisimilitude without adding fresh insights, distancing us from the character not drawing us in. 

My misgivings were laid to rest, though, by the bravura energy and tender vulnerability of Costello’s performance as Tommo Peaceful.  Sporting working-man’s cap and braces, Costello evokes a sturdy boyishness while eschewing male-impersonation – emblemising a spirit of youthfulness and hopefulness Her act of empathy, putting herself in the place of a lad compelled to sacrifice all, goes hand in hand with our imaginative engagement. The narration is delivered in a breathless continuous present – diving between formative childhood days in Devonshire and the countdown to the firing squad, a school-bell clanging out the shifts in time.

Director Alexander Knott musters an adrenal rush and due sense of poignancy through old-fashioned actorly skill and sly technical sophistication – pin-sharp lighting amid a gas-attack’s worth of haze. Marshalling a battalion of musical instruments – rain stick and rattles, tin whistles and tambourines – James Demaine populates the stage in a mass of roles too, among them a snarling school-bully and an early airman, comically shaking his legs to denote the judder of a primitive flying machine. The dominant scenic element is a batch of crates: archetypally fringey, but this would still fit snugly, all the same, amid the resurgent West End.

All in all, a timely reminder, ahead of Remembrance Sunday, that this nation has confronted far worse than enforced face-masks.

Until Sept 27. Tickets: 01285 648255; barntheatre.org.uk