Goodnight Mister Tom, adapted by David Wood from the novel by Michelle Magorian and now being toured by the Children’s Touring Partnership, contains more than its fair share of clichés. William is a young boy evacuated from London to deepest Dorset in September 1939. He is obviously traumatised by his violent religious bigot of a mother. He is billeted on a crusty old rustic, Tom Oakley, who keeps himself to himself and relies for company on his dog. Local children bully William at first, but by and large nice villagers look after him. By the interval both William and Tom have been thoroughly humanised and Old Tom watches proudly as his charge frolics through the part of Mole in a village production of Toad of Toad Hall.
Darker passages ensue, particularly with William’s mother, but the ending is as sentimental and warm-hearted as you could wish. The brisk on-stage narrative allows no time for development outside of Tom and William, but despite all this Goodnight Mister Tom is a great success. Partly this is because many more of us enjoy sentimental warm-hearted tales than will admit to it, but mainly it’s the result of the humour and contrasts of tone in Wood’s script and the precisely calibrated production by Angus Jackson.
There is no hint of over-sentimentality in the two main performances. Oliver Ford Davies (Tom) practises the art that conceals art, an apparently straightforward performance of infinite subtlety. Jack Butcher, one of three boys alternating as William, is nicely understated, but conveys perfectly the growth from repression into self-confidence. There is a gloriously flamboyant turn from Ethan Beer (again one of three in the part) as fellow-evacuee Zach, the precocious son of actors, a neo-Dickensian character. Other characters are more or less two-dimensional, with much doubling from a fairly large cast. Most make their mark – Anne Kavanagh’s kindly, but brusquely masculine doctor, Louise Collins and Freya Parker as brightly giggly schoolgirls – though William’s mother, obviously severely damaged emotionally, becomes a melodramatic caricature.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ costumes and flexible set have the right period appeal (good use of old GWR posters!) and Tony Olie’s puppetry evokes the village wild-life – Tom’s dog, Sammy, is a particular triumph, voiced and manipulated by Laura Cubitt. Angus Jackson’s deployment of the ensemble (railway passengers, marauding kids) is always disciplined and imaginative, right from the memorable opening sequence of Georgina Sutton’s Billeting Officer leading a chain of refugees to the inspiring cadences of “Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye”, for all the world like Gracie Fields at the head of an army of mill-girls!