GOODNIGHT, MR TOM
Children's Touring Partnership at the Theatre Royal Norwich
Douglas Byng [“England's finest cabaret artiste”] came to entertain Norwich in 1941. Not of course the only Londoner uprooted to the Sticks in those unsettled, insecure times, as this marvellous adaptation [by David Wood] of Michele Magorian's novel reminds us.
William Beech is evacuated to rural Dorset, and finds himself billeted with grumpy, reclusive Tom Oakley. Each has demons to battle, and they both emerge stronger from the experience.
Oliver Ford Davies made a wonderful Mr Tom. Though maybe he softened too quickly, his simple kindness and the pain repressed deep inside were both economically suggested. And, the day I saw it, Oliver Tritton Wheeler was a perfect Will – slight, shy, nervous, his body language was always eloquent. A contrast of course with the other Londoner, Max Longmuir's extrovert Zach. Child of actor parents, he is at the centre of the amateur theatricals which, appropriately, loom large in Wood's version.
Michele Magorian started out as an actress, too, and the story was written between jobs, apparently.
I hope she appreciated the ingenious casting that gave Aoife McMahon both the awful mother and the angelic primary school teacher – the key women in Will's young life. Another nice double from Anne Kavanagh as kindly shopkeeper and chain-smoking, mannish doctor – a very recognisable period character this.
Like the novel, the play pulls no punches on the grim realities of war, which even idyllic Weirwold cannot escape. Robert Innes Hopkins' scene design uses two GWR-style posters for London and Dorset, and in an impressive revelation for a touring set, raises its platform to make the Beeches' dingy London basement flat. The costumes were very authentic looking, too. I liked the way Will's green pullover was taken from him as he left the country to be with his sick mother. And Sammy, Will's faithful four-legged friend, who, Lassie-like, leads the rescuers to the grim flat, was brought to vibrant, panting life by Laura Cubitt.
As so often, the language received less care. “There you go ...” and “hopefully” were little heard in the Forties.
And the matinée audience – seniors of Oakley's age [who remembered Virol] and schoolchildren of William's – was not the easiest. Nonetheless, a superb production, directed by Angus Jackson, of an important story.