Goodnight Mister Tom – Review – East Riding Theatre
By Karl Hornsey, December 2018
It’s hard to believe that this year sees the fifth Christmas offering from Beverley’s wonderful East Riding Theatre, but, following on from the Dickens trio of A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and last year’s It’s a Wonderful Life, comes Goodnight Mister Tom.
I must admit to being surprised and a little dubious when I heard that David Wood’s play, adapted from the hugely successful book by Michelle Magorian, had been chosen as this year’s festive treat. There’s no escaping the fact that it’s a story designed to pull on the heartstrings and in places it’s an out-and-out tearjerker. So the idea of staging it around Christmas seemed a little odd to me, but I’m delighted to say I was wrong to have any such misgivings.
Directed by Jake Smith, whose It’s a Wonderful Life last year was so good I went back twice and could quite happily and have watched it again and again, this adaptation strikes the right balance of humour, warmth and, yes, heartbreaking scenes of the highest emotion. Judging by the combination of sniffles and smiles around us as we left the theatre, then the story was pitched at just the right level, largely thanks to a wonderful cast of adults and children alike.
Many people will be more familiar with the John Thaw TV film of the same name from 20 years ago than the original book, and this adaptation stays faithful to both, while also introducing a musical element throughout, often lightening the mood somewhat.
“War casts its shadow”
In a nutshell, the story is set during the Second World War, when Willie, an abused young boy living in London, is evacuated to the country and sent to stay with the reclusive Tom Oakley. This unlikely pairing gradually come to terms with their new situation and grow fond of each other, as Willie is welcomed into the community and shown a love that he has never known before. So far, so good, but matters take a more tragic turn as the tale continues, and the war casts its shadow over the lives of all involved.
While Thaw’s Mr Tom is played as a deeply miserable, unfriendly and downright unlikable man – at least to start with – Roger Alborough’s version has the worst of those edges taken off and, while he’s still unhappy (for reasons that become apparent), he’s far more welcoming of young Willie.
Alborough is outstanding as the rock around which the story is founded, and special mention has to go to Ben Ainsworth as Willie and Harrison McKenzie Donkin as his friend Zach. Willie’s quiet and reserved character in the first half seems in danger of being lost against the exuberant and outgoing Zach, but he really comes into his own in the second half, and both actors produced quite remarkable performances.
The quality of the cast and the production, as usual for the ERT, and if Jake Smith and the actors can pull off this brilliant trick of staging such an emotional story AND still leave the audience smiling when they leave, then I can’t wait for 2019 and ERT’s sixth festive offering.
images: Gavin Prest