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Goodnight Mr Tom

11 January 2019

An Enthusiastic Ensemble Piece

Goodnight Mr Tom

by David Wood adapted from the novel by Michelle Magorian

Step on Stage Productions at Hampton Hill Theatre until 12th January

A review by Matthew Grierson

There is such an exuberance among the young cast of Goodnight Mr Tom that they seem at times to be racing through the children’s classic to get to the next set piece; but given the task of channelling their enthusiasm, directors Emma McCauley-Tinniswood and Maria Austin manage to ensure that the beats of the story are clear while also allowing us to warm to the characters.

Energy and choreography are alike apparent from the start, with the large ensemble briskly milling around on stage to signify the hustle of a railway station in 1939: parents are seeing their children off as they are evacuated to the countryside. Their enforced cheeriness comes through in a rousing chorus of Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye, one of a number of wartime standards that recurs throughout the production to showcase the all-round talent of the cast.

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The mood is dampened by the appearance of Mrs Beech (Hope Groizard) like a stormcloud across the back balcony, and the singing falls silent as she escorts her son William (tonight, Jasper Simmons) on to the platform. This is another motif of the production: the nature of the war means that the music of everyday life is repeatedly interrupted by a minor chord, often in the form of a telegram bearing sad news of a loved one in Europe. Thanks to the impetus of the performances, though, we are never asked to dwell on these moments for too long, and we keep smiling through.

So once William is out of his mother’s shadow he begins to bloom, and in the care of elderly widower Tom Oakley (Andrew Rhodes), finds a place he can call home among new friends and surrogate family. As the titular Mr Tom, Rhodes may move briskly about the place with the vim of a man a fifth of the character’s supposed age, but this at least communicates his brusqueness and initial distance from his charge; and, once he softens, it means his relationship with William is that of an older brother with his junior sibling. The scene where Tom teaches William to write is where this begins to crystallise, and later in the play when Tom puts a friendly, consoling hand on William’s shoulder, the moment feels well earned.

That’s not to say that it’s all easy going in between. At the end of the first act William is returned to London to be reunited with his Bible-bashing mother on the pretext of her illness, and we learn why the boy lives in fear of her. Groizard’s performance as Mrs Beech is legitimately terrifying, irrationally snapping at her son and completely dismissing his story of friendly country folk (Londoners, eh?). It’s all the more impressive that both performers convince us of this unhealthy domestic dynamic when the sound cue for baby sister Trudy’s bawling are so loud as to drown out most of their dialogue. Even a visit from the Luftwaffe’s a couple of scenes later is quieter.

On the whole, however, production values are excellent: the staging is simple and flexible, with plenty of space to accommodate the large cast, whether they’re sat cross-legged for school assembly or, dressed as grown-ups, huddling in the Underground to avoid Jerry’s bombs. The balcony across the back covers Tom’s rooms below, and, when we return to London, these are shrouded with black-out curtains that also suggest the sombre mood of the Beech household and cut us off from the cosy countryside.

The lighting is likewise simple but effective, signalling changes in location and tone. As if responding to Tom’s reminiscence about his late wife’s painting – she said she would only ever need to paint the sky as it was always changing – the cues evoke a raincloud grey, a pink dawn, the sunny countryside and the Blitzed capital with precision. Equally adeptly, characters are picked out in a spotlight to suggest their isolation, as happens at various moments for Tom, William and the latter’s new friend Zak.

In some ways it’s surprising Jasmine Carmody, tonight’s Zak, requires lighting at all given how brightly both she and the character shine. William’s fellow evacuee is appropriately described as a ‘livewire’ in the script, and, in a nice touch, is an aspiring actor, born to play the lead in the village’s amateur production of Toad of Toad Hall. The conceit of the play within the play is a cheeky nod to the potential pitfalls of a play with a large, non-professional cast, though Step on Stage manage to discharge their responsibilities much more capably than their fictional counterparts. The set-up also allows aspiring directrice Miss Thorne (Scarlett Gladstone) the opportunity to rebuke the actual pianist, although when it comes to breaking the fourth wall I do wonder about the wisdom of having the cast hare around the auditorium waving wooden swords about. Maybe I’m just getting fussy with age.

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Just as charismatic as Zak though in an entirely different way is Tom’s dog Sammy, clearly influenced by the National’s Warhorse. His careful handler Nils Collins (who alternates with Simmons as William through the run) brings the puppet to endearing life, winning considerable affection from characters and audience alike. Rounding out a strong supporting cast are Ginnie, Carrie and George, the village schoolchildren, embodied tonight by Freya Peltonen, Amelia Miedzinska and Jessica Jenner.

Goodnight Mr Tom successfully conjures the spirit of the home front with its sense of pluck and resolve. If there are deaths and darkness the production does not ignore them, but soldiers on all the same, hoping for a bright future – as, one imagines, are many of its cast.

Matthew Grierson
January 2019

Photography courtesy of Step on Stage Academy

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From → Drama, Reviews

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