Goodnight Mister Tom, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

David Wood has been writing plays for children for decades, with over 70 titles to his credit and a reputation for creating works that resonate at levels far deeper than much work for young audiences. All that experience is brought to the fore with Goodnight Mister Tom, a superbly moving adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s novel about a young London boy evacuated to Dorset at the start of World War II.

Robert Innes Hopkins’ set design is initially simplistic – almost disappointingly so, with the countryside location suggested merely by a picture-postcard illustration on the backdrop. The raised, raked stage is minimalist and bare, relying upon the cast and a few props to represent all the various locations of the village to which William (Alex Taylor-McDowall in this performance) has been brought.

But what a cast. David Troughton delivers an understatedly affectionate performance as Tom Oakley, the village recluse who is obliged to take William in and who begins to discover the level of abuse to which the young boy has been subjected. There is no real hard edge to his gruffness, just the sensation of a man who has lived a loveless life in the four decades since his young wife died, and who comes to appreciate the chance to have a family once again.

As William begins to open up and join the world, the village’s many characters are brought to life by an ensemble that doubles up in many roles while making each one distinct – but a standout character is William’s fellow evacuee, the precociously theatrical Zach. As played by Oliver Loades (who, like Taylor-McDowall as William, shares the role with two other young actors) Zach is a whirlwind of forthright opinions and tap-dancing shenanigans, bringing his own brand of fresh air to the sleepy village.

All, though, are upstaged by a masterful performance by Elisa De Grey as Sammy, Tom’s border collie. While puppetry features elsewhere in fleeting moments as squirrels and birds are evoked and just as easily dismissed, De Grey is a near constant figure on stage. But, despite being clearly visible throughout and dressed in period costume, like the puppeteers in War Horse the dynamism and character in her puppet cause her to blend into the background, allowing Sammy – whose inquisitive, mischievous and loyal nature is a perfect representation of the breed – to steal every scene he is in.

Although the abuse William has clearly been dealt in the past is implied in the first act, it is when he returns to London at his sick mother’s command that the realities of his former life are truly exposed. And here is where the apparent simplicity of the set reveals its secrets, opening out to provide a home for William and his disturbed mother that is out of some appropriately Gothic horror. While the physical abuse he endures is only hinted at, the mental cruelty is laid bare in ways that are genuinely upsetting and incredibly moving.

This is not to say that the story ever sinks to levels of “countryside good, town bad” at all, despite the contrast of rustic colour and industrial greys in the design. As Troughton’s Tom travels to the city to find his ward, he finds a community just as strong as that in his Dorset village, but which is clearly distraught at overlooking the abuse meted out by William’s mother.

That a family play should even attempt to tackle such issues, let alone portray them so vividly and emotionally, is something that may concern some parents – but it is to be applauded here, thanks to Wood’s masterfully entertaining script and the sensitivity that accompanies every scene. This is a play that demands to be seen by children as well as adults – and will move everyone to join its own sense of deep injustice.

Goodnight Mister Tom is at the Aylesbury Waterside until April 16, then touring until May 21.