A very good night indeed, Mr Tom

Goodnight Mister Tom

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

*****

EVERY so often a play comes along which ticks all the boxes. Goodnight Mr Tom is one of that exalted number.

Acting, direction, staging, scenery, costumes, props, lighting, sound and script could hardly be faulted in bringing Michelle Magorian's 1980 novel about evacuees to life on the stage.

The play can also boast all the emotions; it has humour, drama, pathos, sadness, tragedy and the triumph of the human spirit, all fitted expertly together into two acts.

The book is set around the outbreak of the Second World War when hundreds of thousands of city children where shipped into the country for safety which must have brought back happy – and not so happy – memories for a groups of former evacuees who were at the show as guests of the Grand.

The evacuees had no say in where they were sent or who they stayed with; they were just dumped at a station collected by a billeting officer and taken to people who were expected to take them in.

On such new arrival was William Beech, played by Oliver Tritton Wheeler, who found himself billeted with the cantankerous old  widower Tom Oakley, the village's grumpy old man played by Oliver Ford Davies.

MADE ITS MARK

The book first made its mark on the public as a TV film starring the late John Thaw and there is some irony in the fact that Oliver Ford Davis was Thaw's boss when they appeared together in Kavanagh QC.

William we find is an abused child who has suffered neglect, a strange kind of religious upbringing and seems to have had very little in the way of education.

Tom, has shut the world and everyone in it out of his life as he copes with his own inner tragedy.

An unlikely couple yet we see a bond grow between them as war unfolds around them.

A raised stage serves as Tom's home, the Church hall, Post Office indeed the who of Little Weirwold in Dorset as well as a London hospital and various outpost of British Rail.

Lifting the stage like a mediaeval drawbridge, with similar sound to boot, reveals the dark deprived life of William in London at the height of the blitz in the play's darkest moment.

It is a transformation which shows remarkable imagination by set designer Robert Innes Hopkins and director Anjus Hackson.

CLEVER TOUCH

Another clever touch was the use of a puppet for Tom's black and white collie Sam. Puppeteer Laura Cubitt needs to be congratulated on making the dog appear so lifelike.

Other puppets appeared as birds and squirrels.

Foil and friend for William was Zack, played by Max Longmuir, a Jewish evacuee who was larger than life to downtrodden William who was dragged along with all his enthusiasm. Zach taught William friendship, fun and finally strength.

David Wood's script avoids wallowing in a lake of sentiment and just tells the book's simple  story which is strong enough to stand on its own two feet.

Scattered throughout the play are some wonderful little touches and period pieces including a real dreadnaught of a pram pushed by teacher Mrs Hartridge.

Plays like this do not come around every day so when one appears – catch it.

Roger Clarke

 

Goodnight again Mr Tom . . .

*****

THIS is a truly wonderful play that gives the audience an emotional experience of what life as an evacuee might have been like for children during the Second World War.

Performed by an outstanding cast, including youngsters from The Children's Touring Partnership, Michelle Magorian's story which has been adapted for stage by David Wood, is graphic and gripping from start to finish.

On opening night many people were fighting back tears, and it proved a particularly nostalgic occasion for a group of adults from Birmingham and the Black Country who had been evacuees and were present as guests of the theatre management.

Set at the start of and during the war, the play follows young William Beech's evacuation from London, where he lived with an unstable mother, to the comparative safety of Dorset and the care of elderly recluse Tom Oakley who has not recovered from the loss of his beloved wife in childbirth many years ago.

Oliver Ford Davies, of Kavanagh QC and Foyle's War fame, is superb as grumpy Tom, at first grudgingly accepting his duty of care for the boy, but gradually warming to the youngster and then rescuing the lad after he is suddenly recalled by his cruel mother.

William is impressively played by 12-year-old Oliver Tritton Wheeler whose transformation from a nervous, introverted lad under Tom's guidance is moving. A clever, amusing performance, too, from Max Longmuir as Zach who befriends and encourages his new pal.

Then there is Sammy, Tom's delightful border collie! A remarkable puppet, beautifully manipulated by a female member of the cast, he is a star. Whether barking, sniffing, licking his paws, or demonstraing his love for Tom and William, he is a canine corker.

Directed by Angus Jackson, Goodnight Mister Tom runs to 12.02.11. A triumph, not to be missed.

Paul Marston 

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