It is hard to imagine growing up without Michelle Magorian’s beautiful children’s novel Goodnight Mister Tom. For all those who wish to be treated to a trip down memory lane, this transfer of the Chichester Festival Theatre production does not disappoint.
The play tells the story of young William Beech, evacuated out of London and delivered to gruff recluse Thomas Oakley (Oliver Ford-Davies) at the start of the Second World War. Unloved at home, William learns that life is not as painful as it may always seem, and heals under the care of Mister Tom, who, as clichéd as it may sound, learns to love again. Like the novel, it is a touching story which will appeal to all ages, but especially those who have read the story before.
The young leads, played by a group of six young actors on rotation, are fantastic. Ewan Harris was a wonderful William, sweet and fragile, who worked with Ford-Davies to make every scene they’re in together heart-breaking. It was spellbinding to watch them grow to love each other, bonding alongside Tom’s puppet dog Sammy (handled very ably by Elisa De Grey). This sweetness was only matched by William Price, whose flamboyant Zach was both hilarious and an absolute foil for William’s silent nature. Outgoing and loud, Zach is a role which Price obviously enjoys, relishing the jokes and his absurd-yet-wonderful impromptu musical number, and making the audience laugh out loud on more than one occasion.
Of course, being set during wartime, the piece does not remain lighthearted throughout. We are constantly reminded of the spectre of death, with a mass of gravestones spread around the stage proving to be an image which not only haunts the audience, but also the troubled Mister Tom. Ford-Davies handles the part wonderfully, running the gamut of emotions but never losing his air of careful dominance. Just as communicative is the staging; Robert Innes-Hopkins’ simple yet superb design handles a potentially difficult move between rural and urban very neatly, with the sharp contrast between the cleanliness of Dorset and the bomb-strewn streets of London reflecting both William’s quality of life and his state of mind. The abundance of propaganda posters and songs from the period that accompany changes of scene immerse the audience in the era quite easily, never quite letting us forget the misery which hangs over not only William, Zach and Tom, but the country as a whole.
The production is a wonderful homage to the novel, and its wartime simplicity is a treat in a world of increasingly complex manners of staging and design. As a touching piece of theatre and with fantastic acting across the board, Goodnight Mister Tom is certainly a worthy piece to follow Blood Brothers at the Phoenix.
Goodnight Mister Tom runs at the Phoenix Theatre, London until 26 January 2013. For further information and tickets, go to to the Phoenix Theatre website.