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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM
at Phoenix Theatre

A PLACE FOR COMPASSION
By KATE BASSETT

  Tom Oakley, William Beech and puppeteer Elisa De Grey/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

Mister Tom is an old misery, with virtually no community spirit. Or that's what all his chatty, bustling neighbours think in the Dorset village where he lives, in Southwest England. Ever since the death of his wife in childbirth, decades ago, this taciturn widower has lived alone, in a house next to the graveyard, stubbornly keeping to himself.
 
However, in Michelle Magorian's acclaimed children's novel – here newly adapted for the stage by David Wood, with Oliver Ford Davies in the title role – Britain has declared war on Hitler's Germany, so everyone must do their bit for the war effort.
 
When a horde of evacuees fetch up in the village with little more than the clothes on their backs, needing shelter, Mister Tom rises to the occasion. Surprising everyone, he agrees to take in an inner-city waif called William, played by the commendable 11-year-old Arthur Gledhill-Franks on the night I attended (though he is sharing this role with two others, in rotation).
 
Ford Davies' Tom has a slightly morose, gruff air as he shuffles around his spartan kitchen – with snow-white hair and a baggy cardigan – cooking a spot of supper for William, not saying much. Yet he's actually warm-hearted, calmly perceptive and concerned, realising that this nervous little boy can barely keep his food down and is covered in bruises.
 
The seriously horrid person in Magorian's story, in fact, turns out to be William's mother. A psychotically twisted, fire-and-brimstone Christian, played by Aoife McMahan with an edge of desperation, she suddenly summons her son back to the Big Smoke and subjects him to traumatizing horrors.
 
The middle section of the story is grim, dealing remarkably directly with the issue of abusive parenting. The stage floor swings up to reveal a slum flat like a grey dungeon in Angus Jackson’s production, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins. Mercifully Mister Tom comes to the rescue and there is a happy ending as he and William form a loving, alternative family.
 
Jackson’s cast, as a whole, forms a strong ensemble, occasionally singing poignant Vera Lynn songs, in period costume against a backdrop of wartime posters. This production, which began life at the Chichester Festival and which is touring nationally after its West End run, is understated but surprisingly moving.
 
It has its weak points. Although Wood is famed for his stage adaptations of Roald Dahl, some plot developments are rushed, rather joltingly, towards the end of this piece. Some of the accents, including Ford Davies’ rustic vowels, come and go, and punters who expect theatre for kids to be loud and bouncy might find his performance slightly too phlegmatic.
 
Still, by way of compensation, they may enjoy his perky pet collie: a life-size, rag-cloth puppet with a wagging tale. That’s not to mention the prancing antics of Zach, a precocious, motor-mouthed evacuee who becomes best friends with William and is remorselessly full of beans.
 
All in all, enjoyable and touching.

 


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