A young man sits on a near-stripped bed on a bare stage. He's only 20, and this is his last night alive. It's 1916, and the Battle of the Somme is raging. Tommo Peaceful is going to die in the morning, not in the heat of battle, but shot by comrades who will form a firing squad.
Tommo refused to go forward in the hell of battle when directed to by his sergeant. He's condemned and will die branded as a coward. The insanity of war, (and what without any extreme prejudice can be called the criminal insanity of World War I) has been captured with bleak, quivering intensity by Michael Morpurgo in his play Private Peaceful.
It began life as a novel for children in 2003, and the author adapted it for stage a year later, its two main characters, Tommo and the big brother Charlie he worships, played by a single actor. The actor also steps into the other characters, from Charlie's sweetheart to the recruiting sergeant and the vicar of the home village.
The premise is simple: Tommo wants to stay alive in his own heart for his final living night. He is terrified, and dreads looking at his watch to see the passing hours. But he forces himself to, and marks the time with different memories of his life, from mischief-filled childhood days spent fighting, fishing and poaching, through the darkening horizons of the looming "war to end all wars".
When he joined up to be with Charlie in the ranks, Tommo didn't fully realise it was also the war that would end his life. Not until the endless hell of the trenches, foot-rot and lice, mud and rain, a cup of tea the only comfort. And all the time the bombardments and the intermittent surges forward to gain a few yards with a sickening cost of lives, until the ground is lost again in a counter-attack… with more friends lying dead, their eyes fixed on the lowering, hopeless sky.
Then the day comes when Charlie lies wounded, as the company is surrounded on three sides by overwhelming odds. And the sergeant orders them forward to be mowed down. Tommo refuses: he has to look after Charlie.
Morpurgo paints a livid portrait of a living hell, and the defiant ability to hold on to shreds of humanity even when mindless brutality seems the sensible option. The whole panoply of a war that ended the world as its participants knew it is laid out in a defiant testament that dares to trust in a better world to come. Did it happen? We're still debating.
The Irish premiere of Private Peaceful is co-produced by Pemberley and Verdant Productions, with Shane O'Regan superbly vulnerable and touching as Tommo. It's a powerhouse performance that requires as much technique as it does emotional talent (his mastery of various accents is particularly impressive, with Gavin O'Donoghue as dialect coach).
The director is Simon Reade. The production moves to the Everyman in Cork (Tuesday-Thursday); Garter Lane Waterford; Civic Tallaght; Town Hall Galway; Glor Ennis; Visual Arts Carlow; and Riverbank Newbridge until June 2).
It should not be missed: travel if you miss it in one venue. But I would have my doubts about its suitability for children, despite Morpurgo's reputation as a children's author. Stage can be a lot more frightening than page.
Brendan Behan's The Confirmation Suit was written as a short story in 1953 - "short" being the operative word. Trying to extend it into an hour-long theatrical piece just emphasises its slight nature, even with padding added from other Behan work.
And in Peter Sheridan's adaptation at Bewley's Cafe Theatre in Powerscourt in Dublin, it becomes sadly clear that even though the piece was written early in Behan's short career (before his brain was totally addled by alcohol) that his loudly proclaimed "Irish genius" reputation in his own day rested almost solely on his persona as the foul-mouthed, boozed-up clown. Without it, his writing reputation would probably not have existed abroad, and in Ireland would have faded into obscurity by now.
Gary Cooke performs the piece, and his performance is not helped by his frequent uneasy fluffing of lines, while he depends very heavily on a lot of physical lumbering around the stage, presumably again, to lend substance to the whole thing. And you would not need to be a cynic to reflect on how religiously as well as textually dated it all is, with Confirmation in the Catholic Church, even in the irreverent mouth and memory of Behan, portrayed as actually a religious rather than a social rite.
Another reflection is that Peter Sheridan, who also directs the piece, portrays inner Dublin childhood in his own writing with a lot more charm, pathos, and humour than did Behan.