REVIEW: Goodnight Mister Tom, at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, is heart-warming yet poignantly emotional
PUBLISHED: 13:14 04 May 2016 | UPDATED: 13:14 04 May 2016
'Set during the dangerous build up to the Second World War, Goodnight Mister Tom follows young William Beech, who is evacuated to the idyllic English countryside and forges a remarkable and heart-warming friendship with the elderly recluse, Tom Oakley. All is perfect until William is suddenly summoned by his mother back to London'… Ben Jolley was there at the play's opening night at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.
The first half is full of heart-warming moments that pull on your heartstrings as evacuee William Beech, who cannot read or write but loves to draw and is a “dab hand” at painting, slowly settles into idyllic country life in Little Weirwold.
The minimalistic scenery portrays a simple, friendly lifestyle where all of the characters/residents look out for one another and the costumes - including gas masks, bed socks and flatcaps - help to translate the time period of 1940s wartime.
Taken in, or rather forced upon at first, Mr Oakley transforms from a grumpy old man who sees it only as his “duty” to look after the boy into loveable granddad character ‘Mister Tom’; teaching ‘Willie’ how to read, write and tells him “my own version” of the Bible before bed.
Both protagonists have complex backgrounds that will later tie them together. Having lost his wife Rachel and daughter Jenny several decades ago during pregnancy, there’s been a part of Mr Oakley missing for some time and consequently, he’s shut himself off from the world. William, meanwhile, comes from a violent background where he was whipped by his mum…
As he starts to attend school, William faces several setbacks because of his lack of education and is picked on by less-educated but kind-at-heart George.
Though it’s not long before Willie starts smiling and laughing, joining the village’s amateur dramatic group and shining during an impromptu role - it’s a moment that really has the theatre’s eyes filling up with happiness.
This is in no small part thanks to the “very forward” theatrical “walking rainbow” Zach. He loves to sing, dance and act and his parents used to be performers in the theatre and, upon their first meeting at the post office, befriends William...
The second act, set in the busy-body streets of London, is far more emotional and heartbreaking. The harsh reality of William’s city life is revealed as the stage cranks itself up noisily to reveal the dilapidated decor of his mother’s house.
And it’s not just wallpaper hanging off the walls that appears less than welcoming and a far from homely feature.
Inside is William’s mum, a Christian who inherently fears the devil and accuses him of stealing, begging and beats him for being friends with Jewish Zach. It’s a shocking moment where you could hear a pin drop in the stunned theatre.
As the plot switches back to Dorset, spring is rearing its head and the inhabitants are happy, though all seem to miss their new found friend William.
Mister Tom and Sammy - a puppet dog brilliantly and consistently played by a human actor throughout the whole play - are soon on the train to London after they haven’t heard from William in nearly a month...
The nightmarish scenes that follow lead all three back to the cheerier, family-orientated community of Dorset, but there’s trouble ahead...
Tackling themes of family, death and friendship Goodnight Mister Tom doesn’t hold back on tugging at the audience’s emotions but when William claims ‘I love you’ and calls Mister Tom ‘Dad’, there’s a universal feeling that both protagonists are finally fulfilled and genuinely happy.
Goodnight Mister Tom is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday May 7. Tickets available from www.cambridgeartstheatre.com