“I’ve got the evacuee to prove it”
Now that Blood Brothers has now finished its lengthy London run, the Phoenix Theatre is opening up its doors to new productions: Midnight Tango and Once will come in the new year but first up is Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Goodnight Mr Tom ahead of a UK tour. Michelle Magorian’s novel belongs to the similar strong tradition of children’s literature as Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, that contextualises the Second World War evacuee experience for many children. And David Wood’s adaptation wisely does not attempt to sugar the pill, though billed as a family show and with a beautifully sensitive story of personal awakening at its heart, there is no escaping the brutal shadow of war which ensures the production is never in danger of becoming twee.
The story brings out a wonderful sense of the potential for emotional growth at any age: Oliver Ford Davies’ gruff but kind Tom encourages the bruised soul that is Will, played here by Ewan Harris (one of three young actors sharing the role), to come out of his shell as the young Londoner is billeted to a Dorset village where he experiences the countryside for the first time, learns to read and write and generally flourishes now away from the troubled, abusive mother left in London. But Will provides a similar service for Tom, releasing him from the emotional paralysis that has gripped him for nigh on 40 years and Ford Davies’ depiction of the slow release of his suppressed paternal instinct is just beautiful to watch.
And the community life that Will finds in the countryside is appealingly drawn. The easy cruelty of the native children and initial suspicions of the adults soon melts in the face of the natural charm of the evacuees, Will tagging along in the wake of the extraordinary extrovert Zach, the child of actors darling, who must surely have been an inspiration for Lee Hall’s Michael in Billy Elliot. William Price, again one of three, is just superb, his easy confidence providing the perfect foil for Will’s slow but sure progress. Georgina Sutton and Aoife McMahon make a pair of kindly teachers and puppeteer Elisa De Grey manipulates Sammy the dog with a lightness of touch that avoids too much sentimentality.
Angus Jackson directs with a deft sense of pace which ensures that the transformations of Robert Innes Hopkins’ open set never linger too long with Matthew Scott’s music providing an evocative sense of atmosphere. Occasionally though, Jackson does rush scenes along a little too much – the emotional beat of the birthday party is completely fudged in the hurry to get the props off the stage. But predominantly, there is a keen sense of an appropriate level of emotionality, especially when things get traumatic and they really, really do – Magorian’s writing is commendably fearless.
There was rarely a dry eye in the house with the final scene of Blood Brothers but I’d wager tears of a different kind will still fall on a nightly basis at the end of this show too. Though frequently poignant, Goodnight Mr Tom is a heart-warming, uplifting piece of storytelling and a deceptively simple piece of theatre that would make an ideal alternative festive treat for the whole family.