Michelle Magorian’s 1940s evacuation novel has moved millions of people since it was first published in 1981. And David Wood’s skilful adaptation which has enjoyed several West End seasons and tours since its first outing at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2011 has – like the TV film starring John Thaw – brought it to many more. Cambridge Theatre Company is the first non-professional group to have secured the rights to stage Goodnight Mister Tom so, in effect, this show is an amateur world premiere.
Richard Sockett gives a stupendous performance as Tom Oakley, initially gruff, damaged and reclusive. Then the arrival of abused, frightened, frail Willie Beech (Lewis Long or Jacob Preston) from war torn Deptford forces him to take responsibility for another human being and we watch two people awaking humanity and vulnerability in each other. It’s a story which cannot fail to move and most people have long forgotten that it was originally published as a children’s book.
There’s pleasing work from all the children in the cast and a lot of well thought out ensemble doubling from the adults who become various villagers, Londoners, policemen, nursing staff and much more. Special mention though for William Males who puppets Sammy the dog. Made by Jasmine Haskell, Sammy is a life size black and white collie who does everything a dog does so convincingly that the 14 year old with me said that for several minutes she thought he was real.
In two and a quarter hours the audience, many of whom (including me) have got through several tissues by the end, is led to explore death, bereavement, the process of grieving, psychotic mental illness, decency and what it means as well as the transformative power of drama – as the children in the village, evacuees and locals rehearse and stage plays as an antidote to the horrors of the war-torn 1940s. It’s an emotional rollercoaster but very satisfying.
I have seen David Wood’s play three times before: twice with Oliver Ford Davies in the title role and once with David Troughton as Tom. I have to report that although, obviously, Cambridge Theatre Company has tighter budgets the quality of the acting, which director Sarah Ingram brings out in her cast, compares very favourably with professional versions.