Wednesday, 3 October 2012

2 Michael Morpurgo Plays – Private Peaceful and War Horse

A revival of Private Peaceful, adapted from a Michael Morpurgo book by Simon Reade, is back in the West End, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, in September, for only two weeks.  As one of our favourite authors, we explore what makes Michael Morpurgo’s books such childhood treasures, and so good for stage adaptations.

Adaptations – Out Of The Ashes, The Butterfly Lion, Why The Whales Came

Michael Morpurgo was one of our favourite authors as a child. We still remember recommending for him in 2002, when he became the Children’s Laureate.

The first book we read was ‘The Butterfly Lion’, at school, but over the years we read most of the ones then published.  Among favourites were ‘My Friend Walter’, ‘Why The Whales Came’, ‘Kensuke’s Kingdom’ and ‘Private Peaceful’.

Many have been made into television or stage adaptations, showing the true dramatic potential of Morpurgo’s heartfelt characters.  ‘Out Of The Ashes’, a poignant book about plight of a family of farmers during the outbreak of the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, made a compelling children’s drama; a play adaptation of ‘The Butterfly Lion’, the one that started my love of Morpurgo, recently showed in the Derby Theatre, and ‘Why The Whales Came’ was made into both a film and a play.

The stage and screen success of ‘Why The Whales Came’, and more recently ‘War Horse’, shows that Michael Morpurgo’s war stories are particularly magical. His settings, stories and subjects are disparate, from exotic islands to hospital beds, but Word War I does seem to be a favourite of his.

War Horse

While war is merely in the background of ‘Why The Whales Came’, it is the subject and the feeling of ‘War Horse’ and ‘Private Peaceful’.  ‘War Horse’ is in concept very like ‘Black Beauty’.  We see through the eyes of the horse the close bond between himself and his boy owner, Albert.  The horse is thrown into war, but the bond remains strong.

Though the book has been made into both stage play and film, in my opinion the play is more successful. The emotion of the horse remains palpable, so when characters such as Albert drop out for long sequences, the emotional focus of the play remains on stage.  In the film, the emotional centre is moved from the horse, to his owners, so when the owners begin to change, the film’s plot lost the emotional impact of the novel.

Indeed, the film met mixed critical success. Despite doing well at the box office, it has not matched the runaway success of the National Theatre play, by Nick Stattford, 2008, which transferred to the West End in 2009, where it is still running. The play is also running on Broadway.

Private Peaceful

The stage production of ‘Private Peaceful’ is adapted by Simon Reade, also the author of Michael Morpurgo adaptations ‘Toro! Toro!’, ‘Twist of Gold’ and ‘The Mozart Question’.  It originally shown at the Old Vic in 2004, produced by Scamp Theatre, and was followed by a successful tour, including seasons in the West End.  It is now being revived by the National Theatre, but on a limited run.  The same writer is also behind a screen play of ‘Private Peaceful’, due to come out in December, which might be the explanation for this revival.

It is the first person account of Tommo, a private in the First World War, who tells his life story from the trenches.  The book’s dual focus, of both human relationships and harsh wartime realities, makes it one of the most poignant of children’s novels, and makes a great stage adaptation.  Simon Reade’s production is a one-man show, which fits the lonely retrospective of the book.  It is miles away from the spectacle of ‘War Horse’, but with as much heart.

Michael Morpurgo is a truly magical author.  While I will always, at heart, be a bigger fan of the books than the theatrical or film adaptations, ‘Private Peaceful’ captures the feeling of the book with clarity, heart and precision.  It absolutely does credit to what remains one of my favourite children’s books.

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