REVIEW: Goodnight Mr Tom, Bear Pit Theatre Company

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Rhys Mulligan as William Beech and, inset, with Graham Buckingham-Underhill as Tom Oakley. Photos: Sam Allard

Goodnight Mr Tom, Bear Pit Theatre Company, until 14th December

At first glance Goodnight Mr Tom might not seem an obvious choice for the Bear Pit Theatre Company seasonal offering. In previous years they’ve given us a loud and joyous production of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, a toot-toot-tastic Toad of Toad Hall, and most recently a sublimely poignant take on Blackadder Goes Forth.

This production is closer in feeling to the latter than the rambunctiousness of the former. The play, adapted by David Wood, is based on the children’s bestselling 1981 novel by Michelle Magorian. Many more will know the story from the 1998 film production starring John Thaw.

It tells the story of young lad William ‘Willie’ Beech who is evacuated from London to the countryside during the Second World War, in doing so he escapes the clutches of his child-beating, religious zealot mother and is assigned to the care of the initially curmudgeonly Tom Oakley, an old chap with a dog who has largely shunned the outside world. As the two broken souls bond and mend a heartwarming story of love triumphing over much adversity unfolds.

Directed by Emily Myerscough, perhaps this production’s biggest selling point is that it is evidently put together with a huge sense of community and commitment. Reading the cast and creatives list, there are well over 50 individuals plus a number of local organisations involved, and the eight-night run is as good as sold-out. The atmosphere in the bijou theatre is chock-full of love and goodwill before the play even begins.

Aesthetically the production is bang on. It sticks to the look and feel set out in the earlier productions of the play – from when it first opened at Chichester Festival in 2011, followed by a West End run. Here, wartime posters adorn the walls, whistling kettles are boiled on the Aga as china teacups await filling, everyone wears tweeds and homemade knitwear. Adding much to this magically conjured authenticity is Wendy Brown on piano – who switches from mood and counterpoint music, to scoring the singalong renditions of such songs such as We’ll Meet Again that provide moments of poignance and levity through the course of the play. Elsewhere air-raid sirens, explosions and snatches of radio broadcasts, including Churchill’s ‘beaches’ speech, really transport the audience back to the spirit of wartime Blighty – a time of hardship but when we all pulled together.

Fittingly, the cast are absolute troupers. They are an amateur cast, so there’s not universal excellence, but more than enough stellar performances to really impress overall.

First to mention are the young people in the cast: Hannah Davenport, Annabelle Froud, Louis Hill and Issy Lambourn as the village youngsters add much to the exuberance of the play. Rhys Mulligan as Willie gives a brilliantly subtle, nuanced and heartbreaking performance; while Ollie Elston as his fellow evacuee Zach, the flamboyant son of thespians, is full-on fabulous.

Graham Buckingham-Underhill fully embodies the Mr Tom role – a charismatic and ultimately gentle soul – and adds that important measure of believability to the show. My only quibble is that I would have liked to see more of a Scrooge-like journey; he is only briefly grumpy at the start of the play, so his spiritual growth – and revelation of his own tragic back story – is not as impactful as it could be.

I can’t namecheck everyone, but a few other shout-outs go to Philip Hickson as the comic but knowing Dr Little; the always able Charlotte Froud as inspiring librarian Miss Thorne; the redoubtable Paul Tomlinson as the vicar/child psychologist; Carole Roache as cruel mum Mrs Beech; Rhiannon Broadhurst’s tender performance as teacher Mrs Hartridge; and not forgetting Tom’s dog, Sammy, a puppet brought marvelously to life by Viv Tomlinson and Catherine Harris.

In many ways Goodnight Mr Tom is more successful as a book and a film. The play is troubled by shifts of locations and leaps of plot, resulting in innumerable scene changeovers that stymie the flow and pace. This production ambitiously sought to counter some of the

challenges; for example, the skyline backdrop projected ‘live’ views – from bucolic country vistas with birds flying in the air and the moon rising, to a bombed-out London with St Paul’s to the fore – gives a compelling sense of time and place.

Ultimately only a bah-humbugging misery would fail to be wooed by this unashamedly sentimental, nostalgic and comforting fare. A seasonal figgy pudding of a production.