Goodnight Mister Tom
Paul Johnson | 04 Oct 2011 01:35am
As a huge fan of the original book by Michelle Magorian and the film starring John Thaw I knew I had high expectations when I set out to watch this production. In order to balance my view I took along my friend Bethany (aged 8) who had read the book “a long time ago” and never seen the film! Goodnight Mister Tom is the story of a London evacuee William Beech who is placed with Tom Oakley, a grumpy reclusive old man and their developing friendship – I had read the book many times as a child and had come heavily armed with tissues in readiness for an evening sobbing! The production had chosen to be very true to the film adaptation and when we first saw Mister Tom (Oliver Ford Davies) sat in his simple house with a long line of children trailing behind a harassed billeting officer I settled back in my seat relieved that nothing too drastic had been done to my favourite story. Oliver Ford Davies’ Mister Tom was suitably gruff and his country accent suitably unintelligible balanced by Oliver Tritton Wheeler as William who stood awkwardly frozen to the spot. The first surprise of the evening came with the arrival of Sammy the dog, portrayed using a beautiful life size puppet. At no moment did you not completely believe that the dog was real, the puppet remained active throughout, sniffing around and moving through the actors smoothly and as Bethany giggled also “very funny”. The rest of Act One flew by introducing a myriad of village characters including the other children and William’s new best friend Zak played extremely competently by Max Longmuir (“He was like an adult acting” – Bethany). We both agreed that the use of adults to play the three other village children didn’t ever feel out of place but blended in perfectly with Zak and William. The use of smaller squirrel and bird puppets was very effective in setting the country scene and the transitions from place to place smoothly covered by action downstage so we were never left waiting for the action to continue. The scene where the village was gathered to hear the announcement of war was particularly well handled with just the right balance of solemnity and humour. The star of the show in Act Two was the set, previously just a simple raised area in the centre of the stage it opened out to reveal the squalid London basement where William and his mother lived. The black interior compared to the bright openness of the country house brilliantly set the scene for the darker side of the story. The ever changing back wall from Dorset to London helped us keep track of where we were and the ARP warden and neighbour played by Alan Vicary and Joanne Howarth brilliantly captured the London fighting spirit during the air raid. It is a real challenge to create a fully developed character in a very short scene and I found that this was a problem when William’s mother was introduced. Bethany described her as “petrifying” and we could definitely understand why Will was terrified by her but I really wanted to see more of the other aspects of her character that were hinted at by her actions and the other characters. The caricaturised nature which worked for many of the characters in this play (a necessity when they were on stage for just a few short scenes) made the mother seem slightly 2-dimensional. The nightmare sequence in the second act seemed completely out of place and a little awkward, I would have much preferred to see more of the real life action in the hospital to explain Will’s fear rather than rushing him back to the country. The main problem I had with the production was speed, the pace at times verging on the ridiculous as we rushed from place to place and there was no time given to the development of the characters and more importantly the relationships between them. In a story where the key relationships and friendships are so significant we need time to see them develop; Mister Tom didn’t have time to transform from gruff and sullen to friendly and fatherly and therefore was a little too gentle at the beginning. Oliver Tritton Wheeler showed William coming out of his shell very well during the first half but it was in leaps and bounds when I would have liked to see a gradual change. We moved from season to season too swiftly and I felt that much of the emotional depth of the book was lost on stage. I appreciate the need to keep family shows short and pacey but perhaps the audience had been underestimated, Bethany and I both agreed that it was too short! The size of the theatre did not help either; the Orchard seats almost 1000 and with an army of rattling sweet papers we were never going to get to grips with the intimate relationship between Tom and William. Overall the acting performances and set were fantastic although some of the younger actors definitely began to flag towards the end a problem when some of the most demanding emotional performances are required in the second half. The problem for me was the adaptation itself and the decision to stage it at break-neck speed! I did shed a few tears at the end but only because of a childhood spent with the characters, an hour and a half on stage was just not enough to get to know them fully!
- : admin
- : 19/04/2011