Goodnight Mister Tom

6th to 13th July 2024

Michelle Magorian, adapted by David Wood | Oldbury Rep | Directed by Melanie Brown

Oldbury Rep stage moving adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s wartime story.

‘Goodnight Mister Tom’ is a modern classic, familiar to many from the 1998 film adaptation starring John Thaw in the title role. Although it’s ultimately a heart-warming homage to friendship, family and the uniting power of community, I was reminded watching this opening night production of just how dark it is. Mental and physical abuse, religious zealotry and the devastating consequences of war simmer under the surface of this much-loved tale.

Largely set in rural England in the early days of the second world war, this is an evacuation story which sees William (Willy) Beech billeted from London to deepest Dorset with Tom Oakley, a reclusive widower. The play version, adapted from the novel by David Wood, charts the relationship between these two central characters as they navigate the challenges of dealing with change. For Willy, this change involves leaving his mother and moving to a small village far from home; for Tom, it means taking a stranger into his home and adapting to the demands of parenting.

Keith Thompson is perfectly cast in the title role, a gentle giant of a man. His voice, although it could have been a little louder at times, pipes and whistles beautifully and a real tenderness quickly develops between him and Charlie McRobert’s endearing William. There’s an authentic awkwardness in both performances: Thompson is reserved and hesitant; McRobert is painfully shy and nervous.

A moment in which Mister Tom starts to teach William to read is particularly moving. Thompson quietly, gently encourages and supports with praise and McRobert almost visibly blossoms and grows thanks to the gift all children deserve: time. Any successful production of this story rests on portraying a convincing relationship between these two characters and Director Melanie Brown has succeeded: we invest and care about them thanks to strong central performances.

McRobert isn’t the only child acting talent on stage in this production, however. Eddie Broad, sporting a knitted rainbow jumper, bursts with energy and excitement in the role of Zach, a theatre-loving evacuee who has also been sent to the village to escape the bombs. Scenes in which Zach encourages William to embrace his inner-actor provide the comic highlights of the night. Tom’s border collie, Sammy, is brought to life by Emily Jeffrey who brilliantly combines puppeteering with high-pitched barking.

A large supporting cast do a great job of bringing to life a host of other characters, from village schoolchildren to vicars, ticket collectors and colourful Londoners when the action shifts to the capital at the start of the second act. Gail Mee stands out as both a charismatic librarian and an infectiously enthusiastic drama society leader. The set, divided into sections, nicely transports us from Tom’s church-side cottage to various village locations and a series of projections help to locate the action throughout the production.

When I taught this novel to secondary school students, they could not believe that children were sent away from their family homes at the start of the war. Looking back, it is both shocking and difficult to comprehend. Over the course of three days in 1939, 1.5 million evacuees were sent to rural locations around the country considered to be safe. Many, like William Beech in this story, were met with kindness and welcomed into communities.

Magorian’s story of love and friendship continues to appeal to readers and audiences. This enjoyable production deserves to be seen and will hopefully introduce it to many more.

‘Goodnight Mister Tom’ is playing at Oldbury Rep from 6th to 13th July 2024.