THE children’s writer Michael Morpurgo, author of Private Peaceful and Warhorse, said: “When children are very young, you read them books that are positive to help them go to sleep. But there comes a moment when they begin to understand the difficulties of the world. They know there are problems and the books they read should reflect that, not gloss over them”
He also talked about the importance of hope and redemption, “not because readers like happy endings, but because I am an optimist at heart. I know the sun will rise in the morning, that there is a light at the end of every tunnel.”
I am always reminded of these words, whenever I see a performance of the stage version of Michelle Magorian’s novel, Goodnight Mister Tom. It is a story that takes the audience, and its young central character, into very dark places. Some critics have compared it to Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and you can see what they mean – a child who has suffered cruelty and abuse, who finds hope, love and joy in an unexpected place, only to have it snatched away and to be taken into an even darker place. There are times when the story is heart-stopping. But ultimately, it is heart-warming, without tipping over into cloying sentimentality.
Warminster’s talented Athenaeum Limelight Players, directed by Heather Durbin, presented the play (adapted by David Wood) at their home theatre, the Athenaeum Centre, to sell-out audiences and well-deserved, prolonged applause.
The play opens in 1939, in the tense days before the declaration of war. The central characters are William, a young evacuee from London’s East End, and the reclusive widower Tom Oakley, who surprises the village by “doing his duty” and taking an evacuee. The child is silent, cowering, uncommunicative. Mr Oakley is shocked to see he is covered in bruises, but by kindness and intuition he wins the boy’s trust. And as William gains in confidence, and learns to read and write, he begins to make friends, with his fellow evacuee, Zach, and the villagers.
William is a demanding part – shared by two boys for the ALP production, as is the part of Zach (Noah Dalton and Jude Storer) – played on the night I went by Tim Sturdie (alternating with Harvey Hicks). Tim was totally convincing as the frightened child, taken from his grim religious bigot mother into the care of a gruff old man with a boisterous sheepdog. He captured well the slow blossoming of the child, matched by the gradual opening up of Mark Whitwood, as the old man who shut down emotionally when his young wife and baby died, more than 40 years before. The development of their relationship was genuinely poignant.
The supporting cast included some excellent performances, Ruby Shepherd and Daisy Williams as the lively sisters Carrie and Ginnie, Rebecca Richardson terrifying and tragic as William’s mother, Sammy the dog (and his “handler” Charlotte Stringer, who you quickly stop seeing), Hayley Shepherd as the young teacher Mrs Hartridge, Jude Storer as the ebullient Zach, and Claire Dalton as the good-hearted Mrs Fletcher.
The director has a large cast, including many children – bringing the evacuees in through the auditorium was an effective device – and the pace is not always consistent. Some of the young actors need to slow down a little and project more so that their words can be fully heard.
The excellent and versatile set was designed by Beck Ward Murphy, and there was a real sense of the emotional landscape of the war years and of the close-knit rural community. Mr Tom’s visit to London, particularly the crowded underground where he shelters from the Blitz with a group of East Enders, provided a bustling and confusing counterpoint to the rooted timelessness of his village.
ALP is a group that aims for the highest standard of production and it is always a pleasure to see one of their shows. The next is Steel Magnolias (even more of a heart-breaker than Mr Tom), on from 4th to 6th July.
Pictured: Hayley Shepherd as Annie Hartridge, Lisa Shuckford as the librarian, Miss Shuckford, and Claire Dalton as Mrs Fletcher; the whole cast; Mark Whitwood as Mister Tom, with Sammy (and Charlotte Stringer).