Goodnight Mister Tom at the Southwark Playhouse: ‘maximum emotion from the classic tearjerker’
Based on the novel by Michelle Magorian, Goodnight Mister Tom tells the story of children leaving a threatened London before the outbreak of World War Two. The British Theatre Academy have taken on this emotional tale, and Sarah Gibbs reviews their production.
I’ve long been ashamed that I weep at the annual Christmas broadcast of A Little Princess. Not a delicate sniffle, either. Full-on “ugly cry.” It turns out, however, that a taste for the sentimental benefits the reviewer of David Wood’s Goodnight Mister Tom, now at the Southwark Playhouse in a production directed by Jo Kirkland. While the plot is predictable, the British Theatre Academy’s young artists give committed performances that wring maximum emotion from the classic tearjerker.
The year is 1939, and Londoners are being advised to evacuate their children to the country. War is on the horizon. Evacuee William Beech (Evan Huntley-Robertson) is billeted with Tom Oakley (James Sampson), an aged widower living in Little Weir Wold. The prickly man soon softens toward his charge, whose bruised body and skittish nature testify to a life of abuse at the hands of his zealot mother. William flourishes in the country, but is all too soon drawn back to London’s chaos and danger.
Portraying a character whose physicality fundamentally differs from one’s own is a skill many actors never truly master. Sampson, however, convincingly embodies the pensioner, Mister Tom. Whether he is lowering himself into a chair, hands braced on thighs, or helping William into a jumper with hands from which the years have stripped dexterity, the audience can feel time’s effect on his body; neither props nor aging make-up are necessary. None of the actors in the Academy are older than twenty-two, yet a group of characters that ranges in age from a retiree to a pre-schooler is convincingly rendered. Felix Hepburn as the melodramatic son of London stage actors is a delight: he is a veritable alien in the conservative Wold, and delivers his over-the-top dialogue with scene-stealing gusto. Puppeteer Bradley Riches brings loyal hound Sammy to life.
Small performance spaces are often productive constraints, and set designer PJ McEvoy, along with some pint-sized prop personnel (never too early to learn to set a tea service in the dark) effectively transform a country kitchen to a London bomb shelter. The young chorus perched behind the main players often mime elements of the dialogue, and add welcome texture to the simple staging.
Wood’s script, an adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s novel, is overlong, especially as the death and trauma pile up in the second act. While Allie Aylott ably performs the character, Mrs. Beech’s malevolence strains credulity, and a slick doctor’s attempt to admit William to his boys’ home / psychiatric hospital is a children’s literature cliché. Nonetheless, the later incident is emotionally effective. Like the rest of the audience, I was willing Mister Tom to rescue the boy, and enjoyed the “good cry” that only a sentimental classic, performed by a talented young cast, can deliver.
Goodnight Mister Tom runs at the Southwark Playhouse until the 25th August, 2018.
Feature photograph: Eliza Wilmot