THE dividing line between real emotion and sentimentality can be very narrow, and in a play, maintaining that division comes down to the insights of the director and the understanding of the actors.
Never act with children or animals, they say, so you might think that David Wood’s Goodnight, Mr Tom, with children, animals and a story full of raw emotion, would be a hard act for an amateur company to pull off.
But, just as they showed in their last production that they are no ordinary “bunch of amateurs,” so the standards of this sold-out Christmas production demonstrate once again the outstanding skills of Salisbury’s Studio Theatre group.
Set in the “phony war”of 1939 and the subsequent war years, Goodnight, Mr Tom (adapted from the novel by Michelle Magorian) is the story of a reclusive old farmer, Tom Oakley (Alistair Faulkner), living with his beloved sheepdog Sammy (with puppeteer Tom Morath) in a Dorset village, who unexpectedly agrees to take in an evacuee, as do other local families. The child, William (the wonderful James Cates), is frightened of everything, has terrible bruises, has never heard birds sing or met a dog and has never been loved.
William gradually makes friends, learns to read, meets extravert fellow evacuee Zach (exuberant Ollie Boyle), the son of actors, and discovers the joys of a welcoming rural community, acting and the experience of being loved. It is achingly sad, sometimes funny, feels deeply honest and tears at your heart-strings. It is so much more than a sentimental wartime story – it is a tale of child abuse, religious bigotry, open-hearted kindness, and two lost souls who (for one very late in life) find real happiness.
Not a dry eye in the house, but at this time of year generally – and in an age of climate crisis, vainglorious buffoon politicians and widening gaps between rich and poor – its message is one of hope and keeping faith with the best in human nature.
A simple, flexible, two-level set is, by turns, Mr Tom’s cottage, the village church, the village hall, a London station, the underground, Will’s mother’s house in Deptford and a hospital. The large cast play multiple roles, villagers, Cockneys, nurses, schoolchildren and more. Special praise to Tamsin Jacson, whose various roles included the important but ghastly part as William’s mother.
Congratulations to director Lesley Bates and her great cast (and backstage crew) for another memorable night at Studio Theatre.
Photographs by Anthony von Roretz, Trinity Photography