Chichester Festival Theatre’s Olivier Award-winning production of Goodnight Mister Tom, which first premièred in 2013, is currently delighting young and old alike in London’s West End during the festive holidays, and prior to embarking on an extensive UK tour.
Directed by RSC stalwart Angus Jackson, and remarkably well adapted for the stage by David Wood, who has written countless plays for children, this production remains extremely faithful to the original novel by Michelle Magorian, now regarded as a modern classic, and which relates the story of a young boy named William Beech who is evacuated to the English countryside from the East End of London during World War II.
The young Alex Taylor-McDowall showcases a surprising range and depth as William, the boy who strangely finds greater happiness in his new home than the one he has been forced to quit, with David Troughton (The Archers) utterly convincing as Tom Oakley, a widower who reluctantly decides to take him in. Having gained a reputation for surliness in the village, we eventually learn that Tom has simply chosen to lock out all possibility of becoming fond of anyone since the tragic death of his wife and child many years before.
‘Mister Tom’ is horrified upon discovering that William is regularly beaten by his mother and it’s not long before the newcomer becomes a firm member of the household, which Tom shares with his Collie dog, Sammy – in this case a life-sized puppet designed by Toby Olié and used to great effect. Whilst I’m not usually a fan of puppetry this example was so skilfully utilised as to actually add something to the production, and far from only being a distraction like so many other examples I have witnessed.
Whilst Tom embarks on replacing William’s hole-ridden clothing, feeding him properly, encouraging the boy’s talent for drawing, and teaching him how to read and write, the boy meanwhile forms strong friendships with the local children. But it’s Oliver Loades as the flamboyantly theatrical Jewish lad, Zach, who succeeds in standing out from the crowd, and regardless of the rainbow jumper he sports for most of the performance. I often think child actors get more than their fair share of praise simply because critics take into account their age – but the younger cast members in this production are not only talented but can easily be said to have matched the power of their adult co-stars.
The use of original war-time radio broadcasts by Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, coupled with members of the cast singing familiar 40’s hits made popular by Vera Lynn, helps to create an authentic atmosphere. Robert Innes Hopkins’s set and costume design also adds to the overall look and feel, with a strong sense of anticipation created when the action switches from the country to the East End in the second half.
This may have a period setting but Goodnight Mister Tom and its core values are ultimately timeless, and it’s nigh on impossible not to have a moist eye at Tom’s resulting joy on opening his door, and his heart, to paternal emotions, and when William’s quest to establish a true and loving home during a period of great turbulence is finally fulfilled. An unmissable and hugely touching piece of theatre that will live with audiences of all ages for many a year to come.
Goodnight Mister Tom at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, WC2N 4BG, until 20th February 2016 ahead of a UK tour. Suitable for ages 8+. Running time approximately 2 hours 15 minutes including an interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.