Theatre / Reviews

Review: Private Peaceful, Bristol Old Vic

By toby morse, Thursday Oct 22, 2020

It’s been a long time. Going to the theatre has become a dreamlike memory, something that happened in another life, another place.

But now, seven months after lockdown started, Bristol Old Vic are dipping a tentative socially-distanced toe back in the water.

And it confirms the simple fact that theatre lovers already knew: there is nothing like live theatre. None of the drama that we have been offered while the theatres have been dark – films, television dramas, Zoom productions, recordings of past performances – provides the instant magic of watching a story being made in real time in a shared space, the alchemy that happens when ‘let’s pretend’ meets the willing suspension of disbelief, the thrill of being taken somewhere else through a pure act of imagination.

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Private Peaceful is a perfect vehicle for reminding those starved of live theatre of what they’ve been missing. Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s book, this is theatrical storytelling at its most essential: two actors on an almost empty stage creating a host of characters and a variety of settings, from the grime and haybales of an Edwardian agricultural childhood to the mud and fear of the First World War.

Private Peaceful at Bristol Old Vic: “theatrical storytelling at its most essential”. All pics: Eve Dunlop

Narrated by Tommo Peaceful (Emily Costello) – a prodigious feat of line-learning – it tells the story of  the first 16 years of Tommo’s life, darting to and fro along a timeline that culminates in the Somme trenches. Costello and fellow performer James Demaine present a cavalcade of characters, flitting in and out of roles with the simple
removal or addition of a cap, a change of accent, a different posture. Aided by perfectly judged lighting and sound design, the actors really do manage to create an entire world with just a handful of props.

The Old Vic’s commitment to social distancing and safe theatregoing is equally impressive. Black-uniformed staff bustle around, moving ticketholders smoothly and safely to their designated waiting area table and then on to their carefully spaced seats. This is undoubtedly the way to manage audiences in the age of Covid. Punters are fully socially distanced in the auditorium, and as long as you have a comfortable mask (Bristol’s Milliners Guild is a highly recommended supplier) the experience matches – and perhaps even surpasses – theatregoing in more
normal times.

But quite aside from the fact that Private Peaceful is an exceptionally good show and the COVID-secure Old Vic is an enjoyable venue, there is one more important reason for booking tickets (if you feel comfortable
doing so): it’s live theatre! One of the few opportunities to experience the actual live theatre that many of us have yearned for. And live theatre that desperately needs our support right now.

Private Peaceful continues at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday, October 24. For more info and to book tickets, visit

Read more: Review: Betrayal, Theatre Royal Bath

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