With Penelope Skinner’s recent adaptation of Aleksei Arbuzov’s The Promise and the impending opening of Peter Nichols’ Privates On Parade, the Second World War seems to be a popular topic in Theatreland at the moment.
Adding to the collection yesterday was family favourite Goodnight Mister Tom, which has been adapted for the stage by acclaimed children’s playwright David Wood, whose adaptation of The Go-Between took home the award for Best New Musical, ahead of the Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton-led Sweeney Todd, at the Theatre Awards UK last month.
Wood’s adaptation of Goodnight Mister Tom stays true to Michelle Magorian’s much-loved tale about a young boy evacuated to the Dorset countryside during World War II. Leaving his violent and traumatic home life behind him, William finds himself in the care of elderly recluse Tom Oakley who, in this heart-warming story of friendship, grows to love his new-found companion and goes to desperate lengths to ensure he remains safely in his custody.
Oliver Ford Davies reprises his role as the title character having previously played Mister Tom in the premiere production at Chichester Festival Theatre earlier in the year. The Olivier Award-winning actor’s performance is all consonants and no vowels; his words barely distinguishable amid the disgruntled groans and thick West Country accent of the initially reluctant guardian. However, as the play progresses and his relationship with William begins to blossom, a long-needed feeling of happiness can be seen emerging from under Mister Tom’s furrowed brow as the grumpy old man develops into an altogether more coherent and endearing figure.
Ewan Harris injects a loveable naivety and nervous fear into his performance as the lonely and illiterate William who is more worried about avoiding his next beating than making friends. The yang to his yin, William Price’s Zach perfectly encapsulates the vibrant and eccentric wannabe thespian who bounds across the stage as he bounces from page to page in Magorian’s novel.
Simply staged on a raised brick platform – which later in the production reveals a dark and disturbing secret – with bordering gravestones from the cemetery beside Mister Tom’s house, Angus Jackson’s sharp and polished production is as heart-warming as it is gut-wrenching.
Toby Olié breathes life into the lively Dorset countryside with his cleverly designed puppets, which allow birds to circle overhead and squirrels to scamper up trees, while Elisa de Grey conjures every sniff, twitch and yelp of Mister Tom’s furry companion whose movements become so natural you begin to forget the presence of the unobtrusive puppeteer.
This may be a children’s story but that doesn’t make it any less harrowing. Touching on subjects such as child abuse, single parent families, suicide and war deaths, it is unlikely there was a dry eye amongst the audience of school children, press and even real-life evacuees of the Second World War by the end of yesterday’s opening performance.