Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 17th May 2022
Michael ‘War Horse’ Morpurgo’s novel is brought to life in this effective adaptation by Simon Reade and Nottingham Playhouse. It’s the story of the Peaceful brothers, Tommo and Charlie, and their nigh-on idyllic childhood in pre-war Devon. Throughout the course of one night of sentry duty in the trenches, Private Tommo Peaceful narrates his life story up to this moment, the action slickly transitioning into flashbacks with the wave of an army blanket and a lighting change. The story flows seamlessly and moves on a quite a lick, but there’s still plenty of time for us to engage with the characters and their tribulations.
War takes the brothers to France, where they encounter all the usual tropes of WWI drama: the trenches, the rats, the lice, the unreasonable officers, the futility, the waste of life… Everything except a war poet, in fact. The scenes here contrast sharply with the comparative rosiness of life at home, delivered with a sense of urgency: Tommo must get his story told before morning comes. We find out why in a devastating denouement.
As Tommo, Daniel Rainford is splendid, never leaving the stage. We see him grow up before our eyes, as he and Charlie fall for the same girl, disrespect the pompous lord of the manor, and generally form the fraternal bond that will see them through to the end. Tom Kanji makes a strong impression as the older brother, while Liyah Summers is sweet and appealing as their shared love object. Emma Manton is both tough and sympathetic as the mother, bringing up the boys on her own and striving to keep the roof over their heads. Robert Evans as the older brother with learning difficulties shows us the prejudices of the age, but surely the hardest working and most versatile member of the cast is John Dougall, appearing in the widest range of roles from the ill-fated father, to the vicar, the great aunt, and various military men.
It’s an engaging story, if a little cliched. Director Elle While keeps things flowing, with sudden changes of mood and location jarring us out of the present and into the past and back again. It’s a children’s story so we are spared the worst excesses of conditions, with the horrors of war only hinted at rather than depicted. What comes through very strongly is the injustice of the treatment of so-called ‘cowards’ and conscientious objectors.
Matt Haskins’s lighting and Dan Balfour’s sound design enhance the storytelling, which is played out on Lucy Sierra’s remarkable set that conveys both homeland and war zone at the same time – thin branches curling in the air are also the barbed wire of the battlefield; mounds of sandbags suggest the rolling landscape…
This is a high-quality production reminding us of the huge waste of the First World War, and sadly, there are parallels with the world today, as Ukrainian men are recruited to defend their country against invaders, and once again thousands of lives are being lost on European soil.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆