Michelle Magorian’s novel Goodnight Mister Tom, whose stage adaptation by David Wood is currently appearing on the West End, is a heart warming tale that still does not shy away from its subject matter’s darker elements. It tells of the eight year old William Beech who, at the start of the Second World War, is evacuated to the village of Little Weirwold in Dorset. Following some arm twisting, widower Tom Oakley, who has remained reclusive since losing his wife and child 40 years earlier, agrees to take him in and, in the process of helping William, finds himself once more.
The first half tenderly explores how William, whose mother’s misplaced piety saw her beat him and make him feel worthless, adapts to country life, making friends and finding happiness and purpose. Things become darker, however, after the interval when he returns to his sick mother and becomes tied up in their London flat with her new baby. Although there is a happy ending, the consequences of war and the failure to understand psychological conditions as we do today are revealed to the full. All of the issues are handled sensitively, as the play is designed for both children and adults, but the age recommendation of eight and over should be heeded.
David Wood tells the story in a simple yet effective manner, and the same adjectives could be used to describe Angus Jackson’s staging. A ‘brick’ backdrop sporting Great Western Railways and wartime recruitment posters proves highly atmospheric. Puppets portraying dogs, birds and squirrels have a touch of the War Horse about them, while sound and lighting effects evoke the horror of being in an unfamiliar London at night and suddenly having to take refuge in an air raid shelter. Throughout the evening tombstones lie around, which are integral to the story but also act as a more general memento mori.
The relationship between Freddy Hawkins’s William and David Troughton’s Oakley is rendered with immense subtlety and skill, but it is Sonny Kirby as William’s friend Zach who perhaps steals the show, making this son of actors feel exceptionally precocious and yet immensely likeable.
Goodnight Mister Tom is on at theDuke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4BG until 20 February 2016. The parts of William and Zach are shared by several actors over the run. Tickets £15-£90. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.