The WWII image of dejected, scrappy children with brown tags around their necks, clutching their most precious belongings as they are re-homed with strangers in the countryside is a powerful one. It’s one that inspired author Michelle Magorian to write Goodnight Mister Tom, adapted by David Wood for the stage, now in London after a successful run at Chichester and before heading off for a national tour. The audience meets little William, who is sent from Deptford to Dorset and assigned to live with the reclusive Tom Oakley. With a focus on Tom more so than the relocated children, this is a story about finding love again after a devastating loss. This part of the production is moving, but the story is slow to develop over a long time period and the flimsy, thin dialogue doesn’t support the large cast of characters, their development and the devastation of wartime.
David Troughton as Tom is a sad and sensitive widower, the complete opposite of the grump that his fellow villagers see. Three Williams, three Zachs (William’s precocious evacuee friend) and a gaggle of children make up half the cast; all are very much child actors. Alex Taylor-McDowall is today’s William, a lanky shy boy poisoned by his fundamentalist Christian single mother, Melle Stewart. We hear a lot about her, but only meet her in one scene. Stewart is unable to show just how evil (and mentally ill) the character is, though she does her best to live up to the previously discussed monster. Most of the other characters have similarly brief stage time, but plenty of multi-rolling and puppetry keeps the generally good ensemble performers busy.
But the first half takes its time to get going. It’s not from a lack of energy in individuals, but the overall pace is languid. It’s lovely and sweet, but flat. The war seems far away from this village, country life is slow, and day-to-day life is filled with routine and little errands. It’s in these small tasks that we see Tom’s affection for William grow: getting “new” clothes for him, teaching him to read and write and fending of bullies who pick on the “townies” and “vaccies” from London.
It’s no wonder the local kids pick on the Londoners. William can’t read or write, sleeps under the bed rather than on it, and his toxic mother skewed his worldview about, well, everything. Zach is well-spoken, attention seeking and flamboyant, the son of actors. It’s interesting that the London children the audience meets are either desperately camp or from the slums in this story; does this reflect Magorian’s preconceptions?
Along with Troughton’s performance, the puppets are outstanding. Tom’s dog, Sammy (Elisa de Grey) is gorgeously constructed, and full of movement and life from de Grey’s work. After the interval, there’s an increase in momentum after an unnecessary subplot involving William’s return to London and the effects of war creep closer, creating more tension and loss. The audience learns more about Tom’s past and the ending is a tearjerker and concise resolution.
For a family show however, the whole thing is too long and convoluted. Tom and William’s story could have easily had more focus with a reduction of other characters, more fleshed out scenes and additional detail about Tom’s life leading up to the point he takes in William. Fortunately, Troughton has enough stage time to keep this otherwise lovely, but flat, production going.
Press ticket for Goodnight Mister Tom is courtesy of theatrebloggers.co.uk.
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