“GET your hankies ready,” said a friend before the curtain went up on Goodnight Mr Tom at Bath Theatre Royal on Tuesday.
I had only heard of the 1981 book and John Thaw’s television performance, and so came new to Michelle Magorian’s story of the evacuee and the recluse. It’s no surprise that it is held in such affection and esteem.
The brilliant staging by Chichester Festival Theatre is now on a UK tour, stopping at Bath until Saturday 30 April. Set in the imaginary Dorset village of Little Weirwold and, briefly in London in the blitz, it is the story of William Beech and the crotchety widower on whom he is billeted.
Since the death of his wife in childbirth 40 years earlier, Thomas Oakley has lived in isolation, with only his collie Sammy for company. Then a batch of London evacuees arrives in the village and he is coerced into taking a child. The boy chosen by the organiser is William Beech, a tiny, fragile and nervy child, and immediately the man’s sympathy is engaged, albeit in a very gruff way.
Before long Will starts to call his new guardian Mr Tom, and makes friends with another evacuee, the ebullient, Jewish son of actors, Zach.
Angus Jackson’s production, evocatively designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, transports the audience from the bucolic tranquility and innocence of rural life to the stresses and violence of the city.
David Troughton is the perfect Mr Tom, awkwardly fighting the affectionate nature he has suppressed for so long. Elisa de Grey is the puppeteer who brings Sammy to totally convincing life, panting, whining, yipping, tail wagging and providing warm affection … how far puppetry has come since Sooty and Sweep and Bill and Ben!
At Bath, Will is played with extraordinary depth and understanding by Alex Taylor-McDowall, and Oliver Loades is the confident and charismatic Zach.
The rest of the ensemble doubles up to play villagers, doctors, postmen, ARP wardens and all the rest of the characters who make an indelible appeal with this story, not just to those who remember the wartime days, but young audiences amazed at the hardships endured by children during the dark six years.