DramaFestive 18/19North East & YorkshireReview

Goodnight, Mister Tom – East Riding Theatre, Beverley

Writer: David Wood

Adapted from: Michelle Magorian

Director: Jake Smith

Designer: Ed Ullyart

Lighting: Simon Bedwell

Composer: David Barton

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Goodnight, Mister Tom, best known for the television version with John Thaw 20 years ago, is an adaptation of a 1981 novel by Michelle Magorian. In David Wood’s dramatisation, most of the story remains, with the most noticeable cuts coming in the later stages. But reducing 300 pages to less than two hours stage time produces its own problems. The sense of the passing of time is, to an extent, lost, so changes in characters and relationships occur too suddenly. Similarly, many characters are mere snapshots. However, the central relationship comes through strongly and the production is as heartwarming as it is ingenious.

The basic plot of the novel lends itself to stereotyping which increases when – in the stage version – most characters have no time for a backstory. In 1939 William Beech is a 10-year-old evacuee from Deptford to a sleepy country village, billeted on a grumpy old widower, Tom Oakley. William shows signs of having been abused physically and his mother’s fanatical Christianity is clearly dangerous. Tom and William grow closer together, Tom becomes more sociable, William overcomes initial taunting from the village children to reveal artistic and dramatic skills – and be happy! 

All this is before the interval and then William’s mother asks for him to return to London. Of course, she is appalled that he has been having such a great time, refuses to believe that he has achieved all he says he has and responds violently to his friendship with a Jewish fellow-evacuee, Zach. However, the depth of blackness – of deranged cruelty – that ensues is totally unforeseen. David Wood’s adaptation and Jake Smith’s production don’t shy away from this, but soon, after another unexpected tragedy, the cast members sing Have yourself a Merry little Christmas and sound like they mean it. Devotees of Meet Me in St. Louis will remember that in the film the song is a response to loss and sadness – so a good choice!

As Tom Oakley, Roger Alborough doesn’t quite establish his character as an anti-social recluse but is otherwise excellent. He never strains for effect, never plays the sentimental card (though the script sometimes does) and displays a nice mix of certainty and confusion. His relationship with William is perfectly pitched. And that is where the East Riding Theatre’s production scores most heavily: two exceptional junior performances – or, maybe, four since the word is that Group B can match Group A who played the parts on Press Night.

It is impossible to praise Ben Ainsworth (William) too highly: an intelligently understated performance, prepared to play off others, but able to suggest his depth of suffering and modestly relishing his moments in the spotlight. Harrison Donkin’s Zach is equally impressive in a quite different way. Wood has tasked the youngster with an impossible part, a sort of juvenile Henry Irving, launching into Shakespearean speeches at the drop of a hat, and Donkin carries this off and then finds the humanity of the character.  

A further cast of eight double and triple parts effectively. Matthew Bugg’s four parts are less than memorable, but he is at the fore of the onstage music on various instruments, his sax-playing vicar making a particular impression.

David Barton’s music helps to set the tone of the production, linking the sometimes too short scenes. Designer Ed Ullyart’s two-tier set, with evacuation train videos running behind the upper-tier fields and fences, reminds us how much can be achieved in ERT’s limited space.

Runs until January 6, 2019 | Image: Contributed

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