Goodnight Mister Tom

David Wood
ATG
Richmond Theatre

Alex Taylor-McDowal (William) David Troughton (Tom) in 2015 Credit: Dan Tsantilis

David Wood’s revival of Michelle Magorian’s novel, Goodnight Mister Tom is now on tour, starting off at Richmond Theatre after a run at the Duke of Yorks Theatre earlier in the year.

Goodnight Mister Tom is not your usual children's story. It has the lightness of childhood but also a darkness that makes it all the more compelling and compassionate. This is to be expected when the backdrop is the Second World War.

At the eve of the War, William Beech is one of many children sent away from their parents to the countryside in refuge from the imminent conflict. From London, William is sent to Dorset, to the house of loner Tom Oakley who has never got over the death of his beloved wife forty-years earlier.

It is a meeting of kindred spirits, both in need of rescuing and companionship. William, brought up in awe of Christianity, bears the emotional and physical bruises of an upbringing at the hands of a disturbed single mother. Tom, well, has only a dog, Sammy, for companion.

The first half of the show introduces us, with sentimentality, to the idyllic village community in the heart of Dorset. Despite initial bullying from the local children, William is soon accepted by the welcoming villagers and finds a new friend in the young evacuee Zach who, more eloquent and extrovert, cannot leave William alone. The relationship between Zach and William and between William and Tom is the heart of this story.

While the first half is all about the goodness of the community and the innocence of childhood, it is after the interval that more complex and more sinister events bring the play to a soberer reality, one that has less to do with the War but more with isolation, poverty and abuse. This is probably why this show and the story behind it can still touch and talk to contemporary audiences.

It is also in the second half that the cast step up to the challenge: David Troughton brings to the fore a subtle Tom, compassionate and very aware of his flaws; Joe Reynolds becomes a more rounded and more mature William. The stage, bare in the first half, turns into a cave-like setting that well suits the changed mood of the play.

In addition to the lead roles of William and Tom, the young Sonny Kirby makes a convincing Zach. At such a young age, Sonny is already a versatile performer and impresses with his natural verve.

Elisa De Grey as Sammy the dog is a constant presence on stage, which gives the show a naturalist touch and adds to the humanity and compassion of the events, told with such simplicity.

De Grey’s bravura as puppeteer cannot be overlooked because she succeeds in making the dog another important character on stage that is always present, always communicating, always in action. Sammy the dog breathes, sniffs around, is never totally still, even when the focus is elsewhere.

This production will definitely do well outside London, bringing to regional audiences, adults and children alike, a true theatrical gem and lasting literary classic.

Reviewer: Mary Mazzilli