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Muck and bullets

REVIEW: Private Peaceful (Malvern Theatres – Tuesday, May 10, to Saturday, May 14).

THAT old well-trodden communication trench taking soldiers up to the front line to pointlessly die in blizzards of machine gun fire is once again illuminated by a writer’s star shell prose.

Ever since Siegfried Sassoon’s acerbic poems mowed down the chinless wonder brigade and buried them in ignominy, the notion of lions led by donkeys has firmly rooted itself in much of the public consciousness.

It goes like this. The First World War was one big fall-out between the ruling classes of the countries concerned, in which the working classes were sent to their deaths.

Never mind the fact that the actual truth is that the four years of conflict saw the greatest cull of the British aristocracy since the Wars of the Roses, as the ‘Toffs’ Cemetery at Zillebeke, Ypres, will confirm

. Let’s not spoil the story.

Nevertheless, War Horse author Michael Morpurgo’s story about a couple of country lads who forsake England's ploughed fields for Flanders fields, after hostilities break out in 1914, cannot fail to appeal to successive generations who have never known what being a split second away from death or mutilation would be like.

This is an unashamedly anti-war piece and a talented cast do more than justice to the writer’s words and Simon Reade’s adaptation.

The Peaceful twin brothers have been born in the mid-1890s, not a good time for a British male to enter the world, destined to come of age just as the military mincer gets started up.

Morpurgo’s narrative contrasts the world of Nature that the young men exchange for a world of murdered Nature. Birdsong is replaced by the roar of artillery fire… verdant English meadows by torn and shattered landscapes.

There is a telling metaphor quite early on when the young Thomas Peaceful (Daniel Rainford) wonders why his father needs to chop down so many woodland trees, plainly a vision of what will soon come about, only on a human scale.

The sense of stark desolation viewed from the trenches is skilfully conveyed by Lucy Sierra’s designs, Matt Haskins’ lighting, and Dan Balfour’s explosive sound effects.

With strong performances throughout, Private Peaceful – though following a predictable and inevitable path to disaster – still has the power to shock and depress at the same time.

Nevertheless, one does wonder about how much mileage can still be made from the ‘soldiers as victims’ approach to the subject. Judging by the number of old comrades organisations that were set up after the war, such as the Ypres League and The Old Contemptibles Association, this was not a necessarily a view universally held by the veterans who had been up to their necks in muck and bullets.

The fact is that retrospective moral judgment has in recent times increasingly dominated our thinking about historical events. Private Peaceful arguably falls into this category, yet this play by Jonathan Church Theatre Productions still has the capacity to move and shock us in equal measure.

And that is why the tragedy, loss and misery of that now far-off war will undoubtedly continue to fascinate.

Pictured: Private Peaceful… mud, blood and very little glory.

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