Michelle Magorian’s well-pitched children’s novel has been reverse evacuated from leafy Chichester to the West End, and though far from bomb-proof, David Wood’s new adaptation is just about solid enough.
Goodnight Mister Tom tells the story of mousey wee William Beech, billeted from London to a leafy Dorset village where he learns the meaning of kindness and family from a cut-out curmudgeon and his suspicious dog. The strength of Magorian’s story is in its melding of cosy humanism with the harsh realities of trauma, mental illness and war, and though these edges are unsurprisingly blunted (because apparently family plays must always be nicer and more insipid than children’s novels) there’s still a thread of integrity that binds the syrupy set-pieces together.
Oliver Ford Davies is an almost incomprehensible Mister Tom, drawling his way through the first act with none of the Magwitch-y rage that makes Magorian’s character so intriguing, and spending the second occluded in the considerable shadow left by John Thaw’s seminal portrayal in the 1998 TV movie. He’s loveable in a department store Santa way, more beard than man, and it’s only in a tear-jerking monologue about his wife’s untimely death that he makes any real impact at all. Ewan Harris (who played Will Beech on press night) is rather petulant and monotonal, though he looks the part and his wide-eyed wonder at the care he receives is undeniably moving.
The show is utterly stolen by William Price’s delightfully infuriating turn as Zach, the boy in the rainbow sweater who callooh-callays his way across the stage on a bicycle and thunders precociously into the local amateur dramatics group. The scenes in which he and Harris hacksaw into Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan in the church hall are sweet, funny and well-timed, and highlight the scattershot pacing of the rest of the Dorset scenes. Episodic in that way that encourages reading out loud in stuffy summer classrooms, Magorian’s novel feels even more disjointed here, as Wood’s adaptation allows events to dawdle across and about one another, and pays scant heed to the characters’ emotional through-lines.
Life in Dorset feels rather drab, with a supporting cast that feels meaner than it actually is and either too much puppetry or not quite enough. The sudden fluttering flight of a covering of blackbirds is magical, but the grey squirrel could happily have been culled and Mister Tom’s dog Sammy is a moth-eared irritant. Matthew Scott’s music is bucolic by numbers, and the children’s chorus reciting wartime ditties feels under-realised. It’s a sparse and lifeless sort of idyll, and if it wasn’t for Price’s sparky chuntering the first half would fall flat.
The second act, though no more coherent, is aided by Robert Hopkins powerful design, with the ghastly Beech house lifting like a mouldering trapdoor from the floor, and, in a standout moment, lowering sickeningly over tiny, cowering Will. Director Angus Jackson has a keener sense for the bitter than the sweet, and however unmoving the early scenes may be, tears will roll when events lurch into tragedy. There is an unfortunate squeamishness regarding spikier issues, with little mention of Will’s bed-wetting, a thin showing from Aoife McMahon as his schizophrenic mother, and an awful dream sequence complete with giant cartoon needle to represent his post-traumatic distress, but the horror of Will’s trip back to London feels appropriately dreadful and the key scenes are well handled.
Magorian refuses to shy from the horrors of war, and her honesty assures that this production’s tendency towards the mawkish is quashed by incident, giving the climax a satisfying ring of truthfulness. It’s an unassuming production, with occasional flashes of artistry, but just a little too meagre to qualify as a Christmas treat.