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.