Deeply touching evocation of dark times
Goodnight Mr Tom, Criterion, Earlsdon, until December 9, but sold out.
William Beech has been dispatched from Deptford to Dorset with a label attached to his gabardine mac. It’s a grey mac, from which protrude baggy grey flannel “shorts” above grey socks.
As we soon discover, there are also grey bruises beneath young Will’s clothes. Scars too. Being an evacuee from south-east London in September 1939, is something of a blessing for him. And not just because of the forthcoming aerial bombardment of docklands. He is also escaping from a brutal mother trying to bury her guilt under some fiercely fundamentalist form of Christianity.
At first it seems that “Mr Tom” Oakley is not the most welcoming of hosts. He is the village recluse, still brooding over the loss of his wife and baby in childbirth over 40 years ago.
Keith Railton plays him like a character from Thomas Hardy, his Wessex drawl verging on a snarl initially, before gradually melting into the voice of paternal concern. Is young Will going to be the son he never had?
So far, so potentially sentimental.
But although David Wood’s adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s novel is deeply touching, it is never allowed to become an ongoing gush. Under Helen Withers’ direction, the darkness of those desperate times is given full exposure – particularly when the scenes switch back to London and the cast switch roles and costumes with impressive speed.
Leonie Slater plays one of many convincing double acts as Dorset schoolgirl and metropolitan nurse. Bill Butler is village vicar one minute and a “trick cyclist” . . . sorry, psychiatrist, with a Scottish accent reminiscent of Dr Finlay the next.
Doreen Belton never makes it to Dorset but gives a wonderful cameo role as a heart-of-gold Cockney matron in and out of the air-raid shelter.
As for the youngsters, Joss Wozencroft plays the son of two actors with suitably theatrical panache. Malachi Neat, meanwhile, captures Will’s emergence from insular neuroticism to outgoing optimism with an engaging smile, like the sun beginning to rise over a bleak horizon. Towards the end of the play, he has swapped the grey for friend Zac’s symbolically colourful top.
Finally, let’s hear it for Helen McGowan who plays librarian and drama teacher with panache before letting rip in rousing choruses worthy of Vera Lynn in her war-time prime.
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Barbara Goulden adds: I surely wasn't the only one dabbing my eyes at the end of this wonderful, dark evocation of life for one evacuee during the Second World War.
Be warned, this is not exactly a Christmas show, and it could upset sensitive youngsters with its brutal reality.
Perhaps a little parental preparation might be useful for the under-10s who will undoubtedly love seeing the puppet dog and how village children in the 1940s played. But they might also be disturbed by some of the play's content.
Bullying is nothing new and being referred to as "vaccy vermin" is the least of young William's troubles as he is given refuge in the home of curmudgeonly Mr Tom, played with his usual finesse and attention to detail by veteran Criterion actor Keith Railton.
The role is a gift for Keith - and the part of Zak, the bright and breezy Jewish boy with wild theatrical leanings, is probably a similar gift for Joss Wozencroft.
In the role of William, young Malachi Neat has a tough task, and must exercise immense control as we watch him unfurl from his past terrors and begin to live, for the first time in his tortured life.
His interaction with Zak and the other children, including a clever girl who may not be put forward for a scholarship because, well, she's a girl, is extremely well done.
My only criticism might be the quickness that reports of a death are handled at one point. But there are many deaths, and this is wartime.
Director Helen Withers introduces some beautiful singing to lighten the tension at various points, along with Sammy, the life-sized sheepdog puppet handled with great deftness by Helen's daughter-in-law Emma Withers. I particularly enjoyed the way Emma used her body and facial expressions to mirror the emotions of the dog.