Hankies and tissues at the ready everyone for this highly emotional and rather sad play which I suspect will leave more than a few with flowing tear ducts at the end – even, perhaps, hard-hearted and hard-nosed critics. Based on the 1981 novel by Michelle Magorian, this play is by veteran children's playwright David Wood who has enormous experience in creating effective drama for small people. But this play will be enjoyed by all – adults and children alike – because it tugs at the heartstrings irresistibly.
The story of 'Goodnight Mr Tom' revolves around a young boy, William Beech, who is evacuated from London just before Britain declares war on Germany in 1939. William cannot read or write, wears clothes which would be more aptly described as rags, but has a gift for drawing. He has no father, and lives with his mother in poor housing in London's Deptford. As war approaches, William is shipped off, along with many other children, as part of Operation Pied Piper which aimed to evacuate around three million people to the relative safety of the countryside. William finds himself transported to a village in Dorset where he is billeted with an apparently grumpy and reluctant widower, Tom Oakley (Oliver Ford Davies) who lives with only his dog, Sammy, for company in a house next to the village church. Nervous, William finds village life scary, as least initially. The local children call him names such as 'vaccie vermine', but this does not last long as William begins to form friendships. In particular, Mr Tom (as William calls him) warms to the lad, helps him to learn to read and write and provides him with the comfort of a home.
We are so used to seeing children in West End shows these days, that perhaps we have become rather blasé about their performances. Indeed, many young actors have credits longer than actors who have been in the business for decades. As always where child actors are concerned, the roles are shared and rotated. On this occasion Ewan Harris took on the part of the nervous and abused William Beech transported from the deprivations of his London home to the relative tranquility of the Dorset countryside. Though Ewan has the lead role, he is rather up-staged by another evacuee, Zach, played here by William Price. The son of two actors, Zach is confidence personified, talks like he has swallowed a thesaurus, recites Shakespeare and tap dances his way through the village. It is no surprise that he wins over the audience in a trice.
With his refined, rich and mellow voice, we are perhaps more used to seeing the ever-popular Oliver Ford Davies in Shakespearian roles, or as an Archbishop, or playing a member of the aristocracy. So, it is a pleasure to see him here as Tom Oakely, on ordinary man from a small village who has faced personal tragedies, and is obviously still haunted by them. Initially reluctant to take on the role of temporary guardian, Mr Ford Davies's Tom quickly demonstrates a kindly and compassionate nature and touching concern for William.
Yes, of course, there is a large dollop of sentimentality in this play and, yes, it is sad, very sad in places. Death looms large throughout as we experience the brutal finality of war where friends, neighbours and relatives meet untimely and unexpected ends. In many ways, 'Goodnight Mr Tom' is a powerful learning experience in terms of both the historical context and the horrors of war and worth seeing for those aspects alone. But it is also a totally engrossing and compelling story that is endearing, heartwarming, touching, tender and ultimately uplifting. And you cannot wish for much more than that!
"A lot depends on the performances, and Oliver Ford Davies marvellously shows Tom's transformation from a flinty old beggar, hoarding his words like gold sovereigns, into a figure of loving kindness."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"There are some pretty weepy episodes in this well-paced show but it stops short of sentimentality."
Susan Elkin for The Stage
"Charming production...it’s a quality seasonal offering ."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Twangs the heartstrings, but Angus Jackson’s breezy direction for this production...keeps the sentimentality to a minimum ."
Jane Shilling for The Daily Telegraph