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Goodnight Mr Tom

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

David Wood’s Olivier award-winning adaptation of Goodnight Mr Tom has been revived to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Michelle Magorian’s classic children’s book. Once again, the production proves to be a success.

The story follows William Beech (Freddy Hawkins), a World War II evacuee billeted in rural Dorset with a reclusive old widower, Mr Tom (David Troughton). As the play unfolds, the two characters form a close bond. David Wood claims the best kind of children’s theatre is full of ‘lots of suddenlies’, by which he means sudden scene changes, lighting changes and bursts of music. Angus Jackson’s production of this play is no exception to Wood’s motto. Flocks of puppet birds flutter suddenly across the stage. Mr Tom discovers bruises left on William’s skin by his disturbed and violently religious mother (Melle Stewart). Suddenly they’re in a school, a shop, an amateur dramatics society. Suddenly, a boy in a rainbow knitted jumper (Harrison Noble) tap dances his way into William’s life.

Just as suddenly, in the second half, we move from a train station, to a bomb shelter in London and back to Dorset, the latter transition smoothly carried out by a nightmarish dream sequence. Yet despite these numerous scene changes, the plot never feels rushed. Suddenly, children sing. In fact, the characters frequently break into song. The famous ‘Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye’, popularised during WWII by Gracie Fields, gets overdone and is uncomfortably sentimental. I’ve still got it stuck in my head.

That said, most of the ‘suddenlies’ in the play are very effective, and the audience oohs and aahs at all the appropriate moments. For example, although we see it coming, we’re still shocked when William’s mother slaps him (a woman in the audience behind me mutters, ‘aye, she’s nuts’). The death of a child character is tastefully done in a flash of light and smoke, to the sound of air raid sirens and bombs. Both of these examples lead me to the issue of violence and children. The story features child abuse, deprivation and even multiple child deaths, tough topics Wood refuses to ‘sanitise’. He doesn’t sensationalise them either. At one point the stage rises, creaking ominously to reveal William’s dilapidated home in London. We don’t see his mother tie him up and throw him in a cupboard, we simply watch the stage descending back over him and then discover him in the cupboard later.

The highlight of the play is the puppetry, in particular Elisa de Grey’s role in animating Sammy, Mr Tom’s dog. De Grey has mastered the art of dogginess, from startlingly realistic whining and barking, to the puppet’s constantly moving body. While squirrels scamper and birds flutter in and out of the performance, Sammy is a near-constant on stage presence, providing gentle, life-like humour throughout.

Although not all of the ‘suddenlies’ in this play are equally effective, (why can’t I get that song out of my head!), the production certainly brings Magorian’s story to life, and just when it seems the man in front of me is quietly sobbing because a character has died, William calls Mr Tom ‘Dad’. Suddenly, the guy is crying for a different reason.

  • Drama
  • By David Wood
  • Adapted from the novel by Michelle Magorian
  • Director: Angus Jackson
  • Puppet design and direction: Toby Olié
  • Cast includes: David Troughton, Melle Stewart, Elisa de Grey, Freddy Hawkins and Harrison Noble
  • Theatre Royal, Glasgow
  • Until 12 March 2016
  • Review by S. A. McCracken
  • 09 March 2016

One Response

  1. Mel Cooper

    I concur completely with Saskia McCracken that this is a successful production and just want to say clearly that Goodnight Mister Tom is an excellent tale for a family outing if your kids are, say, over 10 or 11. If they are much younger, some of the subject matter might be tough for them; and the plot might be harder to follow. That said, even the nastiest aspect of the tale are handled with taste, calm and restraint. If they have read the novel by Michelle Magorian or seen the TV film starring John Thaw, they will enjoy seeing the story live on stage. The set by Robert Innes Hopkins, as is pointed out in the review, is noteworthy; it is a striking conception with a simple yet theatrically effective surprise when the story switches from a rural village in Devon to London.

    Village life, the sense of community in the village to which young Bill is evacuated, and the feeling that we are back in the England of 1940 is well-conveyed. The puppetry is a bonus, especially for a young audience that will be taught to use imagination in live theatre; there is charm in the birds and a squirrel and some other aspects of country living. Mister Elisa de Grey’s puppetry as Tom’s dog, Sammy, should be singled out; her movement and vocalisations bring Sammy vividly to life even though you are always aware that you are seeing a puppet. Brecht would be pleased!

    David Troughton plays Tom Oakley with great control and understanding. He is a seasoned character actor used to performing the classics and the night I saw him I believed his character and his transformation from curmudgeon to warm and caring father figure completely. The night I attended Freddy Hawkins was a touching William Beech, and his friend Zach, played by Sonny Kirby, just about stole every scene he was in with his cheeky energy and portrayal of a Jewish child who has been brought up in the theatre. The casting is strong throughout and several of the actors are playing two or even three parts, yet you never confuse them as characters even when you recognise the actors. David Wood has done a theatrically effective adaptation of the novel by Michelle Magorian. But I want to give the fullest praise to Angus Jackson who has directed with real clarity as far as characterization is concerned and strongly theatrical blocking of the action. It is a strong evening of theatre and if it tours to somewhere near you, do consider attending and taking along an adolescent or two. This play is in many ways really for them both for the emotional moral tale and the portrayal of a moment of history. I found the use of music from the period evocative and felt it achieved sentiment but was not sentimentalized. I also liked the fact that they played actual speeches given on the radio by Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill to focus the moment in history. And with the issue of child abuse so current in the news,along with the rise of dangerous religious fundamentalisms, the story, sadly, is also still relevant to our own times.

    Once you’ve seen the play or if you cannot get to it, remember that there is a DVD of the TV film. []

    Or maybe you would like to read the book? []


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