A challenge for all, but still a success

Private Peaceful by Act II ANL-161023-160510001
Private Peaceful by Act II ANL-161023-160510001
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Act II Theatre Company

South Holland Centre, Spalding

Saturday, October 22, 2016

What I like about Act II is that director Karl Gernert always challenges his young actors and they always embrace what is asked of them.

Private Peaceful was certainly such a challenge. The story sees a young soldier called ‘Tommo’ Peaceful sitting on stage, looking back on his life from the trenches of World War I in France, while each scene, acted out among the audience in the function room, brings us closer to the present until the story turns to present tense.

It’s essential a tragedy examining the horror and senselessness of the Great War and the callous execution of shell-shocked and scared soldiers by firing squad, including Tommo’s brother Charlie.

Not only does this production challenge the young actors, but also the audience. Sat in the main function hall at the Centre, with the actors sitting around the room on tables near us and the action being acted out in front of us, rather than on the stage, was a concept new to me. And, with few props too, it took me a while to get into the unfolding story.

But it helped that there was no interval to further distract, and by the end of this 80 minute production I was quite engrossed.

The main characters in the play are Tommo (Teo Kavvadias on stage, Dominic Thorpe on floor), his brother Charlie (Joseph Harnett-Williams) and their best friend and eventiual wife of Charlie Molly (Hannah Robinson).

Dominic’s portrayal of Tommo was moving and compelling, while Hannah was likeable and believable as Molly. But I thought Charlie stole the show with his touching, heart-warming performance. Top stuff. Teo’s job was not easy, but he delivered his lines well, and when required to ‘take-over’ as Tommo at the end, did so convincingly.

Many of the other roles in Private Peaceful were brief ones, but Paige Burgess deserves a mention for her interpretation of Tommo and Charlie’s mum and Christopher Simpson put in a convincing act as inept and cruel commanding officer Sergeant Hanley.

The story ends in chilling manner as Tommo counts down his own brother’s death by firing squad on a watch bequeathed to him by tragic Charlie. At dawn, Charlie is marched before the firing squad, bravely singing their favourite childhood song, Oranges and Lemons.

Tommo ends the story in the present tense with Charlie’s execution and the promise of looking after Charlie and Molly’s new baby, Little Tommo. If I was going to criticise, then perhaps Tommo’s heartbreak at his brother getting Molly pregnant when he didn’t even know they were seeing each other, was not as evident as it should have been. But no big deal.

In Private Peaceful, it is usual for a cast member to address the audience at the end of the play and tell of the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers executed by their own during the Great War, only to be posthumously pardoned 90 years later.

Act II’s touching twist on this was to leave letters on each table, complete with King George stamp, telling the tragedy like a message from the trenches.