Goodnight Mister Tom (Richmond Theatre)

Goodnight Mister Tom (Richmond Theatre, until April 9th)

A touching drama with instant appeal and tremendous performances set against the harsh reality of the Second World War and its impact on Britain is bound to have audiences reaching for their hankies at Richmond this week.

Goodnight Mister Tom is a genuinely engaging and heart-warming production suitable for all the family, with a strong story, humour, and likeable characters. Based on Michelle Magorian’s powerful award-winning debut novel of 1981, the stage version is given fresh drive by master storyteller, playwright and adapter David Wood. Originally premiered at Chichester to mark its 30th anniversary the production goes from strength to strength, losing not a jot of its poignancy.

The multi-layered story deals with grief, abuse, loneliness, loss and the plight of child evacuees sent to the countryside from London. Not once does it avoid the grubby realities, yet at every level the triumph of the human spirit over adversity is written large and at times it is almost Dickensian.

Young William (a confident performance of emotional depth from Joe Reynolds, who shares the role with others during the run) arrives in Dorset with bruises, a Bible and a belt for chastisement from his damaged and cruel mother. Yet the trauma of the emotional and physical baggage is lifted by the care and love shown to him by the villagers, not least the curmudgeonly widower Mister Tom, with whom he is billeted. The bond that develops between them gives the story its affecting heart.

David Troughton is truly outstanding as initially reclusive Tom, who has never fully recovered from the death of his artist wife and their baby 40 years earlier. Grumpy old man he may be, but Troughton gives him a tender heart, trembling with rage at the treatment meted out to his young charge in the past and determined to give him the chance of a new life – which may even afford him a personal resurrection/redemption. It’s a gift of a role for any performer, with barely a moment off stage, but in the hands of such a seasoned actor it’s worthy of awards.

William’s new best friends are the precocious and stage-struck Jewish evacuee Zach, played with relish by Sonny Kirby, and Tom’s border collie Sammy, brought to life wonderfully by puppeteer Elisa De Grey. The rest of the superb cast play several roles, adding weight to the moving story being played out. Notables here include Melle Stewart’s dreadful and disturbed Mrs Beech; Clark Devlin, Hollie Taylor and Martha Seignior as the bullies who form an unlikely friendship with the evacuees; and Georgina Sutton as librarian Miss Thorne, whose amateur theatricals provide welcome relief from the horrors of war.

Angus Jackson directs with a gentle charm that, in spite of the emotional intensity, never wallows in sugary sentimentality. The set by Robert Innes Hopkins is a masterpiece of sheer simplicity and imagination, making use of wartime posters for the backdrop and raising the basic performing area in the second half to reveal the squalid underbelly of a hidden London littered by poverty and neglect.  

Goodnight Mister Tom works in its original book form and in a memorable TV version, but the stage production packs its own punch and make it a must-see. The standing ovation given at Richmond must surely be a regular sight during this glorious tour, recognising intense drama played to perfection.

David Guest

Photograph: Dan Tsantilis