A good night indeed

Best friends: Tom Oakley played by Oliver Ford Davies with his dog Sam and puppeteer Elisa De Grey. Picture Catherine Ashmore

Goodnight Mr Tom

New Alexandra Theatre

****

THE original source of this play comes from the highly respected children's novel of the same name by the English author Michelle Magorian. It's a story set in England during World War II, of a troubled young evacuee who comes to appreciate a new life in the safety of a Dorset country village.

William Beech is a young ` Townie' boy beaten by his deranged mother who arrives in this idyllic country village and into the reluctant care of widower Tom Oakley played by Oliver Ford Davies.

It's not an easy story to deliver on the stage in either its scope of location or subject. The key problem with this adaptation by David Wood is that in the book with ample time to develop the subject the play is now littered with far too many themes which in the short space of time cannot be fully addressed.

This has left gaping plot holes in what is in effect a warm tale of common sense, decency and morality. From an adult point of view you need to ignore this if you want to just enjoy what is a very efficient and visual piece of theatre.

There are no grey areas in this portrayal. The countryside and its folk are loving, considerate and caring and the location is beautiful and inspiring, whereas the city is evil and dark and its inhabitants are rude and uncaring.

Even the bureaucrats are different. City hospitals are efficient and uncompassionate where as the country doctor approves of any action , even kidnap, for the better of mankind and the young lads health, yet smokes continually while dispensing his free medicine and advice. 

It is this opposing polarity that serves to illustrate the boys' plight but the very clever and efficient manner of staging the tale leaves you a little out of breath and slightly removed from caring for his recovery and rescue. It seems no sooner has another element been added to the story than the props are whisked off, replaced by the actors and another cartoon scene of English country life begins.

The saviour of all of this is Oliver Ford Davies as Tom whose statesmanlike solid presence is as sturdy as his Oakley name suggests. The couple of times he gets to slow things down and act are rewarding enough to endure another group of country folk singing yet another war time song.

This play though is meant to include children and the inclusion of the forever present Sam the Dog by puppeteer Elisa De Grey and an assortment of other country creatures add a very enjoyable animated feel to the real life performances. 

In terms of its overall delivery the cast and production team have made perhaps one of the best coordinated touring productions of recent times. Simple but highly effective sound and lighting design added to some very clever staging and sets, together with a sensible approach to their and the casts direction by Angus Jackson, makes for an effective exercise in maximising the available space to progress the narrative.

It is an emotional story with some troubling scenes for a young audience that seem harsh staged against others that feature a cute puppet squirrel. It raises a lot of historical questions that makes it an excellent piece for an educational topic but presents too many easy and unrealistic solutions in this format to what were and still are real issues even today to be totally believed. 

Putting that all aside it's still remains a production that is worth seeing even if it is just to see what can be done in a theatre space with a cast and production team at the top of their game. To 13-03-13.

Jeff Grant 

 

And at the other end of the village

SOME members of the audience were dabbing their eyes at the end of this moving story of a young boy evacuated from his London home to live in the comparative safety of a Dorset village during the build-up to the Second World War.

 Grumpy recluse Tom Oakley isn't too keen on taking in William Beech at first, and makes only casual reference to large bruises on the lad's legs, but their friendship blossoms during what is a somewhat gentle paced first act.

 But the action really hots up after the interval with a glimpse at life in the boy's grim home where his troubled mother displays a vile temper, even putting the lives of William and his baby sister in jeopardy.

 Veteran Olivier award winning actor Oliver Ford Davies, himself a former evacuee, excels as old Tom, a widower who, concerned at not hearing from the boy for a month, sets out for the capital and succeeds in getting the abused youngster back to the village, eventually adopting him.

 Arthur Gledhill-Franks gives a fine performance as William, with Joseph Holgate impressive as the charismatic Zach who becomes his best pal.

 And one loveable character who nearly steals the show is Tom's dog Sammy, played by a life-sized puppet superbly operated by Elisa De Grey. He realistically sniffs at anything that moves - or doesn't move - barks, growls and snuggles up to his master and new friend, William. A canine cutie.

 This production, directed by Angus Jackson, marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Michelle Magorian's novel, and is an uplifting tale that touches the heart strings. To 13.04.13

 Paul Marston 

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