Goodnight Mr Tom – Duke of York’s Theatre Review

Published by Daniel Bennifer on December 21, 2015 12:38 pm
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Adapted for stage by David Wood from Michelle Magorian’s classic novel, Goodnight Mr Tom is a heart-wrenching emotional roller coaster with an uplifting message.

It’s that time folks. We’re in the midst of an influx of Christmas shows once again. Whether you’re looking for a comedic treat courtesy of the pantomime season or a new retelling of a classic play, there’s bound to be something for everyone. Today’s review of Goodnight Mr Tom, which is now showing at the Duke of York’s Theatre, promises to be a delight for all ages.

Adapted by David Wood from Michelle Magorian’s classic children’s novel and directed by Angus Jackson, the story follows William Beech (Alex Taylor-McDowall), an 8-year-old evacuee, who is sent to the English countryside during the Second World War.

It is a story that is set – for the most part, that is – in the quant village of Little Weirwold. His mother, a devout Christian, has purposefully requested that he be taken into a religious household. This puts him into the care of Tom Oakley (David Troughton), an elderly recluse, who lives alone – apart from his canine companion, Sammy. It is a relocation that will, eventually, prove to be fateful in its scope.

The show quickly begins to tug at the heartstrings of its audience, as we find that William has been both emotionally and physically hurt by his mother. Nervous and frightened by his new surroundings – and understandably so – Tom slowly attempts to nature him back to health. In turn, his cold exterior is chipped away in the process to reveal the compassionate man housed within.

However, William’s struggles at this point are many – a theme that will be continued throughout the show. He’s illiterate and has problems integrating with his new school peers. However, he is keen to learn and better himself. And, through the kindness of the residents of the village, as well as Tom and school teacher Annie Hartridge (Melle Stewart), he is provided the opportunity to excel – and that he does.

Goodnight Mr Tom – Duke of York’s Theatre Review

His motivation is spurred on by meeting Zach (Oliver Loades), a fellow evacuee, with whom he bonds. An almost larger than life character in his own right, Zach brings laughs in abundance. His can-do attitude and perseverance is a pure delight to see on stage, and is a credit to Loades’ performance. In one scene, Zach and William discuss sex. A concept, that up until that point, William has been naive on, having only glimpsed at it through the eyes of his mother’s religious dogma. An undeniably critical part of the story, it is clear that Zach helps to coax William out of his shell, and in doing so, the pair are able to establish a social group, consisting of local children George (Clark Devlin), Carrie (Martha Seignior), and Ginnie (Hollie Taylor).

There is so much more to Goodnight Mr Tom than it might appear on the surface. It is a journey that packs a true and emotional punch for theatregoers. The bonding between William and Tom is utterly beautiful to behold and witness. As they develop this relationship and trust – and as William becomes an ever-more important aspect of his life – Tom begins to open up more about his own past. It is at this point that we find out that not only has William’s life been filled with trauma, but so has that of the kind-hearted Mister Oakley’s. His wife passed forty years earlier whilst giving birth to their daughter, Jenny. Neither survived. Since then he’s kept himself to himself, in a hope that he can minimize future hurt. His only true companion over the years has been Sammy, a border collie, of which is brought beautifully to life by puppeteer Elisa de Grey.

It is clear that there are parallels between the worlds of both characters. Ultimately, this is the foundation for the relationship which blossoms between them. They both need each other. Tom’s life is rejuvenated by William’s youthful presence in the household. He has a clear purpose once again. And, in turn, William has a role model and stable and loving parental figure for the first time.

This is testament to the acting of both David Troughton and Alex Taylor-McDowall. You truly feel the bond developing over the course of the show. They’re incredibly believable in their respective performances and are able to move the audience to tears.

 

Poignant. One of the best shows staged in recent times.”

During the show, I looked around and witnessed theatregoers of all ages – including school children – crying and reaching for tissues to dry their eyes. Goodnight Mr Tom is emotionally moving and heart-wrenching.

Yet, the bond that has been established between them is soon to be disrupted when William’s mother sends a telegram asking for him to return to London. Sick and in need of her son to care for her, there is little choice. After a sad, but beautiful rendition – which pops up throughout the production - of “Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye)”, William says farewell to his newfound friends and departs.

However, upon his arrival back in London, it quickly becomes apparent that not all is as it seems. His mother, who is not sick, has had a new child – a baby girl – who she has locked away in a dark and bleak cupboard. With many questions and gifts from his time in Little Weirwold, William’s apparent absurd attitude – in his mother’s terribly cruel mind, that is – causes her to strike him. Seemingly not interested in her new-born daughter, William is left to attempt to care for his sister to the best of his abilities.

What follows are some of the hardest parts of the show to watch without tearing up. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that if you don’t then you’d have a heart of steel. And, having looked around the audience, and seen both children and adults audibly sniffling and reaching for tissues, we’d say that most people would share that sentiment.

Though, to explain this further, we must return back to Little Weirwold and to Tom Okaley. Having not heard from William in weeks, and worried for his safety, Tom decides to travel to London with Sammy in search of answers. Arriving mere moments before an air raid, he is quickly hurried into aa shelter, where he meets a helpful warden and neighbour of Mrs Beech – William’s mother – who accompany him to her house. With no answer at the door and fearing the worst, Mister Oakley pleas with a policeman to break down the door. Whereupon, Sammy locates William bound and gagged within the cupboard. Left there by his mother with his new-born sister, it is heartbreakingly revealed that the child – who he named Trudy - passed whilst clutched in his arms.

Traumatized, William is taken to the hospital, where it is advised that he should be taken into care and undergo therapy. Disagreeing with the doctor’s recommendation – and at the request of William himself – Tom makes use of a moment of mayhem to sneak the child out of the hospital and back to the country.

However, it’s not long before the authorities come calling to inform William of his mother’s audience and to take him back. It’s unbearable to think that the pair might have gone through all of this to only be parted once again – perhaps forever. With no legal rights to keep William, the best recommendation is to place him in a special home where he can receive the treatment that he requires. Fearing being taken away yet again, William lashes out. Asking him to step outside, Tom is presented with a possible solution by the local doctor: he should adopt the child – assuming that is William’s wish.

Goodnight Mr Tom – Duke of York’s Theatre Review

Then, as the play is approaching its end, and with seemingly everything as it should be, tragedy strikes again. Zach, who’s become William’s closest friend throughout the play, is killed in an air raid during his return to London. If you’ve not read or experienced the book or television adaption, this will come as another brutal shock. If that wasn’t enough, it is revealed that Annie Hartridge’s husband, David Hartridge (Guy Lewis) – who is briefly introduced early in the show as a fighter pilot – was shot down and killed during battle, leaving her a widow with a new-born child of her own. A startling contrast to his mother and baby sister, Trudy.

Yet, this brings home the reality of the Second World War. The countless and tragic loss of life was staggering. Goodnight Mr Tom delivers this brutal reality on a truly personal level that will leave you in both awe and tears. However, there is, ultimately, an uplifting ending, as William begins to settle into his new life with his father, Mister Tom.

In the end, we cannot recommend Goodnight Mr Tom enough. The show is heart-wrenching, showing the realities of war through a constant tear-inducing story. The performances are undeniably amazing all-around, especially from the young cast and Troughton. Despite its incredible sadness, there is true beauty to be found in the message that the show leaves us with. If you’re looking for a show that deviates from the norm this holiday, then look no further. It is a poignant tale, that might just be one of the best shows staged in recent times.

Goodnight Mr Tom is running at the Duke of York’s Theatre until February 20, at which point it begins a nationwide tour. The production runs for approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an interval. For further information on that, be sure to check out the official website.

Editor’s note: on the night we attended, the role of William was played by Alex Taylor-McDowall, and the role of Zach by Oliver Loades. Based upon performance date and time, these roles are to be alternated between six talented young performers. It has been confirmed that Joe Reynolds, Freddy Hawkins and Alex Taylor-McDowall will alternate the role of William and Sonny Kirby, Harrison Noble and Oliver Loades will alternate as Zach.

 

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