Following the much-loved children’s book by Michelle Magorian and the film starring late actor John Thaw, David Wood’s adaptation of Goodnight Mister Tom at the Southwark Playhouse has a lot to live up to. Thankfully this youth production, featuring students from the British Theatre Academy, manages to exceed expectations, equally delighting and tugging at the heart strings.
In the run up to World War II, young, timid Londoner William Beech (Evan Huntley-Robertson) is evacuated to Little Weirwold in the English countryside to live with ‘Mister Tom’ Oakley (James Sampson), a grumpy widower and recluse who lives with his dog Sammy. Tom soon discovers that William is escaping more than just the Blitz and he softens towards the bruised youngster as he helps him learn how to read and write and watches him gradually adapt to country life and make friends.
As the play progresses the pair strike up a heart-warming friendship and Tom provides William with the loving, supportive home he’s been missing. Things take a darker turn when William is summoned back to London by his ill mother, and when he arrives back in the city it soon becomes clear just why the young boy was better off in the country, and it’s up to Mr Tom to save the child he’s grown to love.
Directed by Jo Kirkland, Goodnight Mister Tom is a touching story of friendship that deals sensitively with some difficult issues including grief, loss, child abuse and mental illness. Despite the dark undertones of the story there are some lighter moments of comic relief, notably during scenes with William’s extroverted, Shakespeare-quoting friend, Zach (Felix Hepburn), Miss Thorne’s (Millie Brolly) insistence on quiet at all times in the library, and Tom’s playful, loveable dog, Sammy (brought to life thanks to excellent puppetry skills by Bradley Riches).
The audience is transported back in time thanks to great costumes (designed by P.J McEvoy), war-time songs including “Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye” by Gracie Fields, and snippets from the radio broadcast of Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war. In addition the set (P.J McEvoy) and lighting (Gregory Jordan) combine well to shift the story from the lush, idyllic countryside with bright, colourful paintings hanging in the background, to the bleak, dark emptiness of William’s life in London.
While the story is captivating in itself, it’s the young cast members who really stand out and the audience surely witnessed performances from stars of the future. Though the ensemble were all fantastic, special mention must go to Evan Huntley-Robertson who is endearing as the troubled William, putting in a brilliant, moving performance. It’s pleasing see his character grow in confidence as he settles into his life in Little Weirwold. His counterpart, the mature, unassuming James Sampson does incredibly well to portray both Tom’s cool exterior and an older man who’s privately grieving for his wife and son. Allie Aylott is alarmingly good as William’s cruel, paranoid mother, her spitefulness quiet and chilling; while the scene-stealing Felix Hepburn demonstrates impeccable comic timing as Zack, and his friendship with William is a joy to watch.
Compelling, touching and uplifting, this classic children’s tale is brilliantly performed by the young cast and is sure to impress – just don’t forget your tissues!
This review was originally written for Love London Love Culture. To read the original, click here.