This now classic story of wartime evacuees is again touring the UK after a successful run in the West End, and it’s easy to see why the play, and original novel, are so enduring. Balancing a charming, often humorous backdrop of a World War Two era Dorset village, the kind where the war effort is as strong as the community spirit, with a darker backdrop of London, young William Beech is sent to escape the Blitz, and, it soon transpires, some other dark elements of life. Although known as a story about World War Two — and this is obviously central to the storytelling — Goodnight, Mr Tom touches on far broader themes and topics, issues such as community, integration and child abuse. It is often dark in the telling. Covering also themes of death, grief and mental illness it is no easy ride. However, the heart of the story, and the warmth of the ultimate message makes for a hopeful if at times harrowing tale.
Brought to life on stage in engaging style, different enough from the novel version and television adaptation to make it feel fresh, but closely following the main aspects of Michelle Magorian’s novel to keep fans and those familiar happy it is a well thought out adaptation.
The production itself hinges on the performers responsible for Mr Tom and William (as well as the effervescent Zach, William’s friend). David Troughton takes the lead as Mr Tom, stepping into the role previously inhabited by John Thaw in the television version. The children are central to the play and in this production six young boys share the roles of William and Zach respectively, and from the pairing seen there was excellent stagemanship and chemistry from the young actors. The rest of the company (sharing a variety of adult and children’s role… and the occasional squirrel) are uniformly brilliant, moving seamlessly from one character to another, and to their credit are at times unrecognisable from the previous scenes.
Scene-stealingly brilliant however is Sammy the dog. A puppet from the company Handspring, who created War Horse, and expertly brought to life by Elisa deGrey. Sammy the dog is a joy to watch in every scene, and so life-like you quickly forget the talented puppeteer operating him. Giving real life to the character of Sammy, perhaps more than any trained real dog would do, his bond with Mr Tom and William really adds to the sense of ‘family’ in their little unit.
The play goes to some dark places in Act 2, with William’s return to his Mother in London, and subsequent revelations about their home life. Showing that the darkness of the war wasn’t just reserved for Hitler’s attacks on Britain, and that many of the issues we deal with in contemporary society aren’t unique to our own era.
Although originally a children’s novel, it’s clear that Goodnight, Mr Tom has enduring appeal across the age ranges. And in a production that is both fun and visually stunning while retaining all the key elements of this wonderful story, it retains that cross-generational appeal. For those who love the book, or those new to it, Goodnight, Mr Tom as a performance really works to engage, educate and entertain young and older audiences. Veering on the right side of utterly charming, and not tipping into over sentimentality it’s a story with a message and a moral that is as fitting today as the era it is set in.
You can read our interview with lead actor David Troughton here.