William Beech has been despatched from Deptford to Dorset with a label attached to his gabardine mac. It’s a grey mac, below 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 Londonin 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 are 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, well 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.· Goodnight Mr Tom is at the Criterion, Earlsdon, until Saturday December 9. Tickets, however, are sold out.
Nick Le Mesurier
Goodnight Mr Tom is the perfect play for the season, a Dickensian tale with ample shades of light and dark and a core of good feeling.
Young Willy Beech is sent as a wartime evacuee to lodge with curmudgeonly old Tom Oakley. It’s obvious that the child is disturbed. He comes with bruises all over his body and a nervous temperament, very much a stranger to the countryside, unfamiliar with dogs and birds and unable to read and write. He’s a nice lad, though, and it isn’t long before Willy manages to find a place for himself in Tom’s home. The neighbours are at first suspicious but hostility to outsiders is only skin deep. His journey to acceptance is eased by the eccentric and lovable Zach Wrench a joyful, not to say joyous fellow evacuee.
All seems well for a while, as friendship and natural goodness blossom in this bucolic environment. But dark clouds are on the horizon. War claims its victims abroad and Willy receives a letter from his mother calling him back to London. When he gets there he finds she has somehow acquired a baby girl “from Jesus”. We quickly see that his mother is the cause of Willy’s bruises and fears. She’s a religious fanatic and clearly ill in ways she doesn’t realise. But evil cannot triumph over good, and Willy’s fortunes are turned in the nick of time.
Keith Railton delivers a heart-wrenching and beautifully sustained performance as Tom Oakley. His love for the boy is palpable. Malachi Neat is so endearing as Willy, a fragile, gentle boy who finds happiness at last. Joss Wozencroft as Zach almost steals the show: he is a marvellous clown-like character in rainbow coloured clothes, riding around on stage on a bicycle shouting Callooh! Callay! Jan Nightingale is truly terrifying as Willy’s mother, a woman teetering on the edge of insanity. The large cast work together well, and there is a real sense of faith in the essential goodness of the story of the rescued little boy.
I can’t leave this review without mention of one other star: Sammy the dog, a marvellous puppet wielded expertly by Emma Withers. Sammy embodies the heart of this play, and there were a good many tears shed by the audience at the happy ending.
Goodnight Mr Tom is an excellent choice of entertainment for those who want something deeper, richer and ultimately more nourishing than the usual Christmas fare.
I surely wasn't the only one dabbing my eyes at the end of this wonderful, dark evocation of life for one particular evacuee during the Second World War. Be warned, this is not exactly a Christmas show - and it's likely to upset sensitive youngsters with its brutal reality. Perhaps a little parental preparation might be useful for the under tens 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 this 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. Indeed this role is a gift for Keith - and probably also Joss Wozencroft - the young actor selected to play Zak, the bright and breezy Jewish boy with wild theatrical leanings. In the role of William, young Malachi Neat has a much harder job 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, and this is war. 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 her daughter-in-law Emma Withers. I particularly enjoyed the way Emma used her body and facial expressions to mirror the emotions of the dog.