REVIEW: ‘Private Peaceful’ – The Apollo Players

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, Private Peaceful is the Apollo Players’ first show of 2023, and they’ve got the year off to a flying start – and I don’t just mean Pete Stockman’s fabulous cameo appearance as a lost World War I pilot.

There are always challenges in adaptations of books for the stage: in this case, the first person narrative of Thomas ‘Tommo’ Peaceful is told mainly in episodic flashbacks, which could easily result in confusion and two dimensional characterisations, especially with a large supporting cast. However, the use of back projection made it quite clear where – and when – we were, and the sheer talent of the actors, many playing multiple roles, engaged the audience fully.

Indeed, it was great to see the Apollo taking full advantage of its own thriving Youth Theatre to cast not only the two main roles but several supporting characters, and there are some very bright talents: Lucas Rayner, Daniel Harries and Vicki Cook were classmates and army comrades, and  the future of Island theatre looks to be safe in their hands. It is also good to see some relatively new, more mature faces on the Apollo stage – I particularly enjoyed hating Tracey Taylor as Grandma Wolf, resenting Di Marsh as Molly’s snobbish mother, and engaging with Anne Walpole’s Miss McAllister.

When the stage also holds such experienced actors as the aforementioned Mr Stockman, Helen Reading, Jason Harris, Chris Hicks, Danny Carmichael and Karl Whitmore, you know you’re in for a treat.

Helen turns the relatively small role of Mrs Peaceful into a masterclass of engaging audience sympathy, particularly her care for her son Big Joe, played by Mark Duffus; Jason is genuinely frightening yet persuasive as the hectoring recruitment officer, Chris shows the range of his skills by playing the pompous and throughly unpleasant Colonel, the kindly Lieutenant Buckland and the gentle but understandably enraged café owner, with Susan Simpson again giving a lovely performance as his daughter Anna, supported by Dave Talbot, Danny Carmichael, Tracey Taylor and Anne Walpole as their customers. Danny himself is on fine form as a rather unsympathetic vicar, and Karl is to be congratulated for portraying a bullying schoolmaster, a mild-mannered, bumbling chaplain and a cruel army captain, all equally skilfully and convincingly.

There are too many walk on and background roles, shared by cast members, to mention, but they all support the creation of Tommo’s world, and central to this creation is the backstage talent that created the simple yet very effective set. At first sight it is evident that the play is set during World War I but with very few props the set turns into a Devon meadow, a family kitchen, a jail and more. All credit to the set design and construction team. The costumes – and the willingness of most of the male cast members to adopt a period-appropriate haircut – also evoke the times perfectly. A mention should be made too of the truly terrifying lighting and sound effects during the battle scenes, and the only slightly less frightening tick of the clock which is constantly signalling the passing of the one night of all nights that Tommo needs to stay awake.

However, it is upon the shoulders of the younger members of the cast that the show rests, and they are amazing. Lilly Valvona is a very bright talent – I have seen her singing and dancing, but here she shows her excellent acting skills as Molly, the young love interest of the two main characters. We follow her, and them, from their first day at school to adulthood, and watch the relationships as they develop through time. Tom Hogarth Massey shows skills beyond his years, as Charlie Peaceful, Tommo’s elder brother. This is a demanding role: we see him as a carefree boy; as we follow him through the years he is impulsive yet very caring, at the mercy of his emotions yet fiercely loyal, reluctant to blindly obey orders, resilient and brave. The brotherly relationship with Tommo is the centre of the play.

Harrison Hartup as Tommo has taken on a huge responsibility. On stage for almost the whole play, with so many lines including substantial monologues, it is he who ensures we know his story, who engages our empathy and needs to elicit audience response, especially at the very powerful end of the play. And Harrison does all this and more. The stunned silence in the auditorium during the last scene is testament to his success, and that of the whole cast and crew in creating this wonderful piece of theatre.

Private Peaceful runs from Tuesday 7th to Saturday 11th February and tickets are available from


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