views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Private Peaceful and Bottleneck
Theatre N16
16th September 2015


Shana Swash as Tommo

Photography supplied by Theatre N16

Don't be fooled by the name, Theatre N16 has moved from Stokey to Balham! Not content with relocating to the other side of London, their first offering in The Bedford ambitiously consists of not one but two shows (although if you're feeling skint, you can buy tickets to just one half of this coming of age double bill).

First up is Private Peaceful, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted by Simon Reade. This highly emotive play tells the story of young Tommo Peaceful (Shana Swash), a teenage soldier who was sentenced to death by firing squad in World War I. My personal favourite of the two, I found this show both captivating and thought-provoking. Former Eastenders star Swash moves between the characters of Tommo and Chris Palamountain, who reads extracts of Tommo's journal in the present day. Casting a woman as a male teenage soldier requires a little suspension of disbelief, but hey, surely that's a prerequisite quality for a theatregoer? As it turns out, gender-blind was definitely a smart choice as Swash is fantastic in the role, playing Tommo with just the right mix of vulnerability and strength.

Private Peaceful is admittedly fairly simple, yet effective. There is no need for any gimmickry or fancy special effects as Morpurgo and Reade's words and Swash's emotional rendition are powerful enough to hook the audience. Nevertheless, director and designer Ella Marchment ensured that there were a few well thought-out touches. In the background, a large clock counts the minutes on a screen, calling attention to the fate that will befall Tommo. The production also integrates film footage of the trenches - a timely reminder that the events described were played out in reality many times over - and on the floor we see the ripped out pages of Tommo's diary strewn across the room, his memories haunting us all.

The second show seems a complete contrast at first. After the break we are met by the energetic and slightly irritating teenager Greg (Will Mytum), who kicks a ball around the room, not caring whose way he might be in. This is the start of Luke Barnes' play Bottleneck, which transports the audience back to 1989, to a world of teenage angst and fun in Liverpool. There is lots of swearing, some outrageous comments, and if you're not careful you might end up covered in Quavers. This is another one-person show with Mytum also impersonating a host of other characters in Greg's voice. Again, you need to slightly suspend disbelief, as Mytum is clearly not 15, though he is certainly as energetic as any lad that age. I was exhausted just watching the constant stream of words and movement!

Will Mytum as Greg

Photography supplied by Theatre N16

In the first part of the performance there are some fun, laugh-out-loud moments and some highly relatable teenage commentary and events. If you can think back to your teenage years, I'm sure you will recall at least one episode of humiliation at school, or being made to look "like a bellend." Mytum does a great job of capturing this period of youthful innocence (although these teenagers may know about sex, there is plenty they don't yet realise) with his extreme hyperactivity, stroppiness and vibrancy. Having said that, after a while I did start to find it all a tad repetitive. The atmosphere changes though when Greg finds himself at a fateful football match in Sheffield (I'm sure you know the one I mean, but if not Google it). The play suddenly takes an altogether darker turn, and once again I found myself drawn into the world on stage.

As in the first play, directors Jamie Eastlake and Emily Collins include only a few props, but good use is made of them. I loved the part where two framed photos of footballers are used to act out a conversation between people much closer to home. The teenager in me also enjoyed the presenting of a piece of shit, although the adult in me is glad I wasn't sitting on that side of the room...

This is a fascinating double-bill, with some strong performances from Swash and Mytum. The first piece has a clear message and moral stance, whilst I was less sure what to take from the second. Is the message that you shouldn't disobey your father and sneak into a football match? Er, no, but the real message isn't that clearly defined. I suppose it's more along the lines of bad things happen sometimes and there isn't much we can do.

Despite the coming of age focus, I didn't really feel that Greg grew up all that much as a result of the events. His actions afterwards were still those of a teenage boy, albeit one then haunted by sadness. Tommo Peaceful was also very much a boy (legally too, as he signed up underage). Despite entering a cruel and adult world, certain comments revealed him to still be just a child. And that makes both of these stories all the more painful.

Private Peaceful and Bottleneck opened on 14th September and run until 29th September 2015 at Theatre N16.

Nearest tube station: Balham (Northern)

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