It was a case of hankies at the ready at Milton Keynes Theatre last night (Tuesday) for the opening of children’s playwright David Wood’s adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s highly-emotional wartime-based novel, Goodnight Mister Tom.
Written in 1981, for many Goodnight Mister Tom is best remembered as a brilliant BAFTA award-winning TV film starring the late John Thaw in the title role but this theatrical version tugged at the heartstrings just as much.
The storyline revolves around young William Beech, a nervous and abused evacuee who flees London in 1939 just as Britain declares war on Germany. William had been brought up by his troubled single parent mother and along with dozens of other children from Britain’s capital city, he is shipped off as part of ‘Operation Pied Piper’ to the relative safety of rural Dorset.
There the frightened lad is virtually dumped on reclusive pensioner Tom Oakley (Oliver Ford Davies), a grumpy widower whose wife Rachel had died some 41 years previous in childbirth as did his baby son.
Unable to read or write, William (played by 11-year-old Jamie Goldberg on the opening night although there are two other ‘Williams’ in the cast) is covered in bruises administered by his God-fearing mother.
Mister Tom is horrified and seeks advice from Dr Little (Osmund Bullock) who prescribes Witchhazel for the lad’s injuries while he assures Tom that William’s persistent bed wetting will soon pass.
‘Willy’, as William becomes known by the local kids, had turned up in rags but with various donations of clothing and an oversized pair of boots, he displays a rare talent for drawing and is given Tom’s late wife’s easel and paints.
He is timid beyond belief but he overcomes his fear of Sammy, Mister Tom’s collie dog, which is superbly handled by puppeteer Elisa De Grey and they become inseparable.
With more and more puppets being used in dramas like ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Lion King’, you seem to ignore the puppeteer and simply watch the puppets!
The local children make life pretty tough for the village’s new ‘townie’ – there’s certainly plenty of name calling – but William begins to form a close friendship with Zach (12-year-old Thiago Los) a fellow evacuee and they join the village’s drama group.
William’s new guardian really warms to him and in turn, the lad learns to read and write thanks to the efforts of the kindly pensioner.
But things go badly wrong when William’s mother contacts him to ask him to return to London and the squalor that is their home in Deptford … and suddenly William’s fear factor is back.
Once again he is beaten unmercifully for the slightest thing after learning his mother has had a baby. The upshot is that Tom and Sammy go looking for him during the blitz. They rescue both him and the baby after finding them cruelly tied up in a cupboard, the unstable mother nowhere to be seen.
Taken to hospital and in danger of being permanently taken into care so Mister Tom decides to kidnap William and they return to Dorset where he learns that his mother has committed suicide.
William is eventually fostered by the loveable Tom but sadly Zach is killed after he is asked to return to London by his parents.
Better known as a veteran Shakesperian actor, Oliver Ford Davies is brilliant in the title role. With his rich Dorset accent, he displays real compassion.
There is also a choice of six talented youngsters playing the roles of William and fellow evacuee, Zach. Arthur Gledhill-Franks and Ewan Harris alternate with Jamie as William while Joseph Holgate and William Price switch with Thiago to play Zach.
Zach’s character is very ‘over the top’ – probably due to him being the son of two actors! – and he quickly wins over the audience. There is also a very talented cast playing a variety of roles among them a vicar, a policeman, social workers, schoolchildren and teachers plus nurses an air raid warden.
Songs from the period are scattered throughout and there is the added soundtracks of the then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declaring that ‘Britain is at War with Germany’ while later in the show, Winston Churchill’s dramatic ‘We Will Fight Them on the Beaches’ speech also comes over the radio.
There’s plenty of tragedy, sentimentality and humour and in many ways Goodnight Mister Tom brings home both the horror and camaraderie of the period. For almost two hours you are engrossed in Michelle Magorian story which recreates her own mother’s tales and experiences as a wartime nurse.
Goodnight Mister Tom runs in Milton Keynes until Saturday with some tickets still available. So call the box office on 08448 717652 or go online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes