I imagine that it is incredibly difficult to write a book aimed at children. You don’t want to talk down to them or soft soap them but you do want to offer a thrilling, interested and informative read that may also be, in its own way, educational.
Goodnight Mister Tom is an award winning book by Michelle Magorian that was turned into an equally award-winning play by David Wood who has considerable experience as a playwright for the juvenile market.
But don’t be mistaken into thinking that this powerful, emotional and thought-provoking drama is only suitable for children.
It’s back in the West End for a spell before embarking on a UK tour and I’d encourage families of all ages to see it (though leave very little ones at home who may be upset by some scenes).
I never fail to have a lump in my throat by the end. I’ve even been known to stifle a little sob at this moving, heart-warming and ultimately uplifting story of a young boy’s wartime experiences as an evacuee.
David Troughton’s lugubrious face is a study in anguish, sorrow and loneliness as the Mister Tom of the title.
The solitary Tom lives a reclusive existence in a Dorset village, a widower after losing his artist wife and baby son 40 years earlier. Now, at the outbreak of World War Two he is forced to take in a London evacuee. William Beech is malnourished, beaten and bruised, and timid.
Willy has never been to the countryside before and has lived as a virtual prisoner with his sadistic and religiously zealous mother who beat observance of the Bible into him with a leather strap.
Tom Oakley is horrified that she has packed the fearsome belt alongside the Bible and vows to treat the terrified little boy with kindness. To help him is the remarkable sheepdog, Sammy (expertly handled by Elisa de Grey).
Willy is introduced to the other villagers who take him to their hearts and he makes firm friends with another refugee, the outgoing Zach, and the village kids.
David Wood, who has written more than 70 plays for children including stage adaptations of The Witches, The BFG and Babe, and he knows not to churn out drama that is mawkish and overly sentimental.
Director Angus Jackson doesn’t water down some key scenes that are, quite frankly, pretty harrowing. This is the journey of both a boy, and an elderly man who both discover the value of friendship, love and community.
The second Act takes us from the clean air and colour of a village idyll back to the grim streets of London and Robert Innes Hopkins has designed an impressive set which sounds as though it is hand-cranked into place by its industrial-strength chains.
Willy’s insane mother (a terrifying performance by Melle Stewart) is pure evil and one of theatre’s great villains.
The hard-working cast play more than 20 characters with some doubling up as puppeteers. This is very much an ensemble piece with everyone creating an evocative and wonderfully told story.
David Troughton’s beautifully observed performance as Tom is genuinely heart-rending and, at the press performance I saw on Thursday, Alex Taylor-McDowall as Willy and Oliver Loades as the exuberant Zach were outstanding.
Goodnight Mister Tom plays at the Duke of York’s Theatre until February 20.
Tour dates February 23 – 27, Manchester Opera House March 1 – 5, Milton Keynes Theatre March 8 – 12,Glasgow Theatre Royal March 15 – 19, Birmingham New Alexandra Theatre March 22 – 26, Oxford New Theatre March 29 – April 2, York Grand Opera House April 5 – 9, Richmond Theatre April 12 – 16, Aylesbury Waterside Theatre April 19 – 23, Woking New Victoria Theatre May 10 – 14, Cardiff New Theatre.
Goodnight Mister Tom
Harrowing and heart-warming. The award-winning Goodnight Mister Tom is a story to touch your very soul with a powerful performance by David Troughton as Tom Oakley.