Alone on stage, with only a uniform, an old bed and a painted sky, Andy Daniel lays out the story of sixteen-year-old soldier Thomas Peaceful, in an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel from 2003. Daniel evokes the characters and scenes with superb physical and vocal energy, supported by clever lighting and well-balanced sound, painting visions of fear, tenderness and joy with bold strokes. There is not a slack moment in the show, no missed beat or drop in pace, and whether sitting or lying, changing clothes or throwing over his bed to make a parapet, Daniel just keeps on driving the story forward. And he needs to; Morpurgo’s tale is full of beautiful and fascinating scenes, and it is hard to do them justice in little more than an hour.
Morpurgo has created some of our best-loved stories, and this production ranks with the best adaptations of his work.
Simon Reade has maintained splendidly the essence of the story, preserving a remarkable amount of the book’s most important characters and themes in a 75-minute adaptation. Losses and omissions are inevitable, and it is a shame that some of the childhood passages, especially the hugely endearing relationship between Tomo, Charlie and Big Joe, should have to make way for the descriptions of shelling, gas-attacks and night raids in Belgium. It is perhaps unsurprising that Reade should focus on the War in this anniversary year, but there are other changes which seem less well justified. For example, one of the cleverer and more poignant of Morpurgo’s decisions, which underpins the whole narrative and with which he ends the story, has been simplified in a way which seems unnecessary, and which renders the ending considerably more predictable.
Another loss, a casualty of the relentless pace of Daniel’s performance, is the novel’s sense of contemplation, so well translated in the old BBC radio adaptation. The story is told in the course of a night, as Tomo waits and dreads the dawn, but when Daniel sits to check his watch he seems still too full of energy, too ready to leap into the next scene. His voice keeps pace with his body, and while his vocalisation of the different characters is excellent, Tomo’s narration never seems to alter from a tone of childlike surprise, with vowels stretched and elongated through his unschooled Dorset accent ‘til one feels that Daniel’s portrayal of the congenitally simple Big Joe may have infected his treatment of the narrator. Peaceful may still be a young man when he tells his story, but his experience would have made him much more than a child, and a greater sense of development from the boy we meet on his first day at school would perhaps be welcome.
Yet I would not wish to be unjust to a splendid piece of theatre, which makes of its sparse resources a truly absorbing and emotive experience. Morpurgo has created some of our best-loved stories, and this production ranks with the best adaptations of his work. In 2014 it is good to be reminded of the love and the happiness which was poured into the Great War; of everything which the soldiers thought they were fighting for and everything they lost. If you are willing to let yourself be shown these things, then you must go to see this show.