First published 30 years ago, Michelle Magorian’s children’s novel has sold over 1.2 million copies in the UK and numerous in translation, and been nominated for a Carnegie Medal while the TV adaptation starring John Thaw won a BAFTA. And Wood’s play has all the hallmarks of an award-winner too.
Set at the outset of the Second World War when children were evacuated en masse from London and deposited with strangers in the countryside, Goodnight Mister Tom is a tale of one such boy, for whom this is an escape from a manic and abusive mother, and the mutually beneficial relationship he builds with the taciturn Tom Oakley.
Despite the constrictions inherent with staging, under Angus Jackson’s direction Wood’s play superbly and simplistically contrasts the freedom of Dorset and its robust wholesome villagers with the darkness and depression of Deptford under siege.
Olivier award-winner Oliver Ford Davies is spellbinding as Mister Tom, providing the narrative quite naturally through asides with his dog Sammy – a puppet by War Horse’s Toby Olie acutely observed by Laura Cubitt.
There are three Williams and three Zachs to cover the 14 stop tour. William (a fantastic performance by tiny Toby Prynne on Press night at the Theatre Royal Plymouth) is superbly vulnerable and believably blossoms under the old man’s guiding hand while Emilio Crescenzo milked the gift of the part of Zach to perfection.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ set cleverly contrasts the colourful picture postcard rural scenes with the creaking rise of Williams’ London dank slum while explosions, wartime songs and playground games are signs of the times – as is the wonderful chain-smoking common sense doctor.
My only criticism is that perhaps Wood tries to do too much to remain faithful to the original and the swift episodic nature of some of the later scenes – such as Zach’s London visit and William meeting Peggy - sacrifice their poignancy and may have been better lost altogether.
I defy you not to shed a tear. An excellent evening for young, old and everyone in between.