Goodnight Mister Tom
Grand Opera House, York
Till Sat Apr 2, 7pm & 2.30pm Sat matinee
There are three pieces of advice I need to pass on about this show. Firstly, it starts at 7pm, and not the more usual 7.30pm. Several latecomers seemed to have been caught out by this and, trust me, you won’t want to miss even a minute.
Secondly, make sure your hands and arms are in good applauding condition – you’ll be doing plenty of it.
Thirdly, and most important of all, bring tissues. A lot of tissues. If nothing else in the show gets to you, just wait for the final line.
Based on the award-winning 1981 novel by Michelle Magorian, most people first encountered this story in the 1998 TV adaptation starring John Thaw. Set in 1939, it portrays the gradual friendship which grows between Tom, a reclusive widower in a small village in Dorset, and William, the abused and traumatised evacuee billeted upon him.
Much of the weight of the show is on the utterly reliable shoulders of David Troughton, a rather more sad and lonely Tom Oakley than the grumpy one portrayed by John Thaw.
We warm to him much more quickly, and know instinctively that William has found a safe haven with this distant, but still essentially kind, man.
Troughton can hold the audience with a single change of facial expression. There is utter silence when he takes William’s baby sister from him, and realises her condition.
No words are needed – the pain, horror and pity on his face tell the whole story.
The role of William Beech, Tom’s evacuee, is shared by Freddy Hawkins, Joe Reynolds and Alex Taylor-McDowall, and that of his best friend, the theatrical Zach, by Sonny Kirby, Oliver Loades and Harrison Noble.
The programme does not reveal which boys take the roles on which nights, but the pair who performed on Tuesday had fantastic chemistry. You could believe absolutely in their friendship.
The two roles demand a lot, in different ways, from their actors, and the boys were well able to rise to the challenge.
Special praise must, however, be given to the actor playing William, in his transformation from terrified and abused child to the happy and confident boy at the end of the play.
Apart from these three central characters, the entire cast takes at least two roles. Thanks to the versatility of the actors, and the wonderful costume designs, you may not quickly realise that Clark Devlin is both the policeman and the very plausible bully, George, or that Simon Markey portrays the bluff, well-spoken Dr Little as well as the Cockney ticket collector.
Guy Lewis has even more changes to cope with (newly-qualified RAF pilot David Hartridge, Charlie Ruddles, the village vicar, and the deeply creepy psychiatrist, Mr Stelton), while Jane Milligan is close behind with Tom’s neighbour Mrs Fletcher, Londoner Gladys, and the social worker.
The most strikingly different character pairing is handled with complete confidence by Melle Stewart, who gives us both the gentle village schoolteacher, Annie Hartridge, and William’s vicious mother, Mrs Beech. She pulls off the extraordinarily difficult task of making us understand the trauma, terror and fragile mental state that have made Mrs Beech so abusive.
Sam the border collie is played by a wonderful puppet, handled by an equally wonderful puppeteer, Elisa de Grey. Her extraordinary range of accurate noises, and the skill with which she matches these to the movements of the puppet, are worth the price of the ticket on their own.
There are also puppets of a hedge sparrow, both perched and in flight, a red squirrel, and a flock of rooks, beautifully brought to life by Abigail Matthews.
The set works just as hard as the actors. What begins in Act One as a simple platform, backed by a huge 1930s railway poster for Dorset, becomes, with different pieces of staging and furniture, everything from a village hall to a London railway station, cleverly aided by exemplary lighting and sound designs.
The real genius of the set, however, comes in Act Two. The railway poster, now changed to one for London, becomes obscured as the whole platform hinges and opens.
It raises, with ear-shattering roars and groans, to reveal William’s mother’s flat. It feels like the descent into some kind of hell – highly appropriate for the scenes which unfold there.
The wallpaper is filthy and peeling, the dirty windows criss-crossed with tape in case of bomb damage. Grubby laundry sways on a bar, and a crucifix hangs on the wall.
The sturdy, plain furniture of Mr Tom’s cottage is replaced by orange boxes, and a drawer for the baby’s crib. The difference between this room, and the home William shares with Mr Tom, could not be more clear.
There is a happy ending, but only after a rollercoaster of nightmare and recovery, reconciliation with the past, and the acceptance of a present in which life does not always play fair.
The packed house, many still wiping their eyes, rewarded the cast with thunderous applause, and a prolonged curtain call. It was richly deserved.