A small boy shuffles onto the stage. He’s, skinny, covered in bruises and terrified. In the brown paper bag that he carries is a leather belt, that his mother uses to thrash him, and a Bible.
The award-winning World War Two drama, Goodnight Mister Tom is currently touring the UK in a revival that stars respected RSC actor David Troughton as the curmudgeonly Tom Oakley, and a trio of skinny ragamuffins who portray the frightened, uneducated, battered William Beech.
Goodnight Mister Tom, which is playing this week at Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre, has been adapted for the stage by acclaimed dramatist David Wood who has stayed true to author Michelle Magorian’s award-winning novel and created a masterly drama.
It’s themes are shocking, disturbing and at times, harrowing, but this is also a heart-rending story of a young London evacuee and a lonely widower who find love and fulfilment after lives tinged by tragedy. I defy you not to be choked up by its conclusion. It is a play that will truly move you no matter what your age.
I first saw this Chichester Festival Theatre and Birmingham Rep co-production in the West End before Christmas and there has been subtle changes to the production during its tour.
Troughton told Stage Review, in a recent interview, that Tom has become “more tetchy” as the tour has progressed. To be honest, he does his best to be “a grumpy old sod,” as described by another character, but fails miserably.
The truth is, Tom is consumed by sadness, still grieving the loss of his beloved wife and newborn child more than 40 years ago. He has withdrawn from life and living, spending his time on his Dorset farm with devoted sheepdog Sammy.
The actor’s moving turn carries most of the performance. His mournful face and brusque attitude may initially scare the little boy presented to him but the audience can see through it immediately.
William (Alex Taylor-McDowall in the performance I saw) has never left his domineering and religiously zealous mother. He wets the bed – when Tom can persuade the boy to sleep in it rather than under it – can’t read or write and is woefully malnourished and the victim of prolonged neglect.
But the youngster’s life is soon transformed thanks to the love of a rural community and a friendship with a precocious fellow evacuee called Zach (Oliver Loades).
The story’s second act, when William is called back to London, is deeply disturbing yet director Angus Jackson succeeds in depicting the horrifying scenes with skill and sensitivity (the staging is pretty spectacular too).
The two boys give engaging performances. Loades works hard with Zach who is Tigger-like, bouncing around the stage, garrulous and filled with life while Alex succeeds in winning our sympathy and hearts.
The ensemble frequently take on a number of roles to flesh out the village of Little Wierwold as well as working as puppeteers. Guy Lewis cuts a fine figure as a doomed pilot as well as playing a stuttering vicar, a child psychiatrist and more while Melle Stewart swings from an amiable, pregnant schoolteacher to play William’s terrifying and mentally unstable mother.
I rather enjoyed Georgina Sutton’s turn as librarian and am-dram director Miss Thorne. We felt her frustration at trying to get good performances out of her untrained young cast.
Elisa De Grey has the arduous task of wrangling the enchanting Sammy who seems to have developed a lot of bad habits while on the road including typically doggy things like licking up sick, howling, jumping up and barking at everyone.
But this is a Collie that can do do wrong in the eyes of the audience. He wins the hearts of theatre-goers as soon as he comes on stage despite needing a few dog training classes. Elisa does a remarkable job with him.
Goodnight Mister Tom may be a little too intense for very small children but it’s a play that every family should see – just remember the tissues.
Playing at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre until tomorrow night.
Remaining tour dates
April 19-23, Woking New Victoria Theatre
April 26-30, Bath Theatre Royal
May 3-7, Cambridge Arts Theatre
May 10-14, Cardiff New Theatre
May 17-21, Newcastle Theatre Royal
David Troughton gives a heartfelt turn as a grieving widower who finds hope in an abused London evacuee in the award-winning and beautifully played Goodnight Mister Tom.