BWW Reviews: GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM, Phoenix Theatre, December 27 2012
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by Gary Naylor
Life during wartime is different and, for some, those differences - often forced upon them - can be liberating. Goodnight Mister Tom (at the Phoenix Theatre until 26 January and on tour) throws together an abused London boy with an ageing Dorset countryman, as the evacuation of city children to rural villages at the start of World War II separated families - not always for the worse.
William (Arthur Gledhill-Franks) craves the love and attention due to any child, but gets none from a mother straight out of Stephen King's Carrie. Shipped out from an East End targeted by Luftwaffe bombs, he is billeted with loner Tom Oakley (Oliver Ford Davies), whose life more or less stopped with the death of his wife in childbirth. Despite the villagers' less than positive earlier experiences with wild boys from London, William's shy politeness wins them over. He's helped by a fellow evacuee, the exuberant Zach (Joe Holgate in great form), and the bonding that naturally arises in village life, especially with the impact of war brought terrifyingly close by the dreaded telegram. "Community" here is not a just cliche used by journalists and politicians, but an unspoken sense of obligation and mores, almost tangible in its power. It is this sense of comunity that draws in an audience as much as the plot.
The extraordinary lifting of the whole stage to reveal William's Deptford dungeon and the dazzling puppetry of Elisa de Grey literally animating Sammy, Tom's border collie, shows youngsters the magic of theatre and gives adults that real West End feeling. The crashing impact of bombing may frighten very young children, but that may be no bad thing, as this show, perfect for 8s and over, demands proper concentration from kids.
Adapted by children's theatre specialist David Wood from Michelle Magorian's novel, Goodnight Mister Tom is an old-fashioned family story, with just enough of the hard edge of war to leaven the schmaltz. For kids, it's not just an education in the sacrifices required of every Brit in Total War, but also in the power of love to transcend generations and transform lives. It's a lesson that cannot be learned too often.