Writer: Michelle Magorian
Adaptor: David Wood
Director: Jo Kirkland
Reviewer: David Guest
A powerful story touching on rebuilding lives, loneliness and friendship that knows no barriers, set against the harsh reality of the Second World War is being presented by a talented and enthusiastic cast of young people at Southwark Playhouse.
Goodnight Mister Tom is being staged at the venue by members of the British Theatre Academy and the performances are so outstanding that talent scouts will surely be fighting to sign up these incredibly gifted young individuals, all of whom are aged under 23.
The multi-layered story is based on Michelle Magorian’s powerful award-winning debut novel of 1981, the stage version adapted with freshness, poignancy and tremendous spirit by master storyteller David Wood. Here, director Jo Kirkland adds some lovely touches, not least using a large cast of youngsters and giving them plenty to do in the background. She avoids offering something so sugar-coated that the emotional intensity dissolves.
It tackles very real problems such as grief, abuse, loneliness, loss and the plight of child evacuees sent to the idyllic countryside from London. Not once does it avoid the grubby realities, yet at every level the triumph of the human spirit over adversity is highlighted, focussing as it does on two very different characters in desperate need of saving.
Young William Beech (played when I saw it by Rufus Kampa with supreme confidence and exactly the right measure of vulnerability – he is one of four sharing the role during the run) arrives in Dorset from Deptford with bruises, a Bible and a belt for chastisement from his damaged and God-fearing mother. He is brought out of his shell and given new life and hope away from the emotional and physical wounds he carries by the kindly villagers of Little Weirwold
He is billeted with the bad-tempered, reclusive widower Tom Oakley, played at this performance by Eoin Mckenna (a role shared during the run with James Sampson). A deep bond develops between them, allowing both to be transformed, and this gives the story its affecting heart.
Mister Tom is a major role, which has been played by actors including John Thaw, David Troughton and Oliver Ford Davies on stage and screen. Eoin wastes no time in putting his own mark on the part, with a beautifully judged and fully believable performance. This isn’t the filthy tramplike character we’re perhaps used to, but a bitter, uneducated man struggling against the blows delivered to him by fate (he has never fully recovered from the death of his artist wife and their baby 40 years earlier). Initially grumpy he has a heart of gold and his rage at the treatment meted out to his young charge in the past and determination to give him resurrection in a new place with new opportunities is tangible.
Ethan Quinn brought the house down when he appeared in Ragtimeat Charing Cross Theatre a couple of years ago. As William’s new friend, the precocious and stage-struck Jewish evacuee Zach, he manages to make even more of an impact. He is one of four sharing the role at Southwark, and seizes the part as though written for him. It may well be one of the finest acting performances on the London stage this year.
Mister Tom’s dog Sammy is given life by puppeteer Holly Whittaker (one of six taking the canine lead during the run) and she affords the animal personality and some well-observed little traits. Her action would make the War Horse team proud or jealous. Chantelle Duru is William’s mum (one of five sharing the role), a performance of fiery passion and venom.
The set by PJ McEvoy is a masterpiece, using several framed paintings as a backdrop, each one showing one of the scenes in the play. The furniture is all multi-purpose, lending a worthy simplicity in the theatre’s Little space.
There are over 200 youngsters sharing all the roles in this production and they don’t put a foot wrong, whether singing well-known wartime songs or playing villagers, Londoners, and other schoolchildren. It is exciting to discover so many young actors performing with such maturity, theatrical skill and tear-jerking capacity, telling a glorious story with such vigour and finesse.
Matthew Chandler’s BTA is also staging the musical Bring It On at Southwark, Spring Awakening and Little Women at Stockwell, and Chicago at the Minack in Cornwall. Judging by this perfect production the whole season will be worth a look – and if many of the names of the young cast aren’t West End stars in a few years’ time then I shall happily eat my hat!
Runs until 25 August 2018 | Image: Eliza Wilmo