A packed courtyard theatre with an audience ranging from old to young, who have made the trek out on a bitterly cold January evening is testament to the enduring popularity of the 1981 book by Michelle Magorian.
For those unfamiliar, Goodnight Mr Tom is in essence, the story of two broken souls. The widowed Tom Oakley accustomed to his lonely life and William Beech, an evacuee from Deptford. It is a story of love, optimism and the power of kindness.
The opening scenes depict England on the brink of war. Wear your mask! Instructs Nick Gane’s officious warden. A moment of levity for this 2022 audience who chuckled at the parallels with modern life.
The opening scenes could trick the audience into believing they are in in for a rose-tinted look at WWII life with a host of cheery villagers pulling together. The slight sentimentality offset by constant reminders of darkness. William’s scant belongings contain a belt ‘to thrash him with’ and a bible with firm instructions it be read daily. Then there are the telegrams delivering the worst news. Firstly, to George, the village boy William eventually befriends and his teacher, the kindly Mrs Hartridge.
The first act unfolds in a series of set pieces as we are introduced to the characters and animals that make up William’s new world. It is difficult to condense a 300 page book into a play and there is some rapid jumping between locations that doesn’t allow for some relationships to breathe. The versatile set which makes use of every inch of the courtyard stage does much to offset this. Kudos to Set Designer Andy Croft and the Chipstead Construction Team. The audience led from schoolyard to Mr Tom’s home via the graveyard. The depiction of digging an Anderson Shelter is clever. And the use of the different stage doors does much to separate the locations.
Much depends on the central performances to convince the audience. Mike Strong is marvellous, portraying the curmudgeonly Mr Tom’s transformation from village loner into the kindly father figure who transforms William’s life. Ella Yeloff as the exuberant, confident evacuee Zach with his rainbow coat and steadfast loyalty to William , provides respite from the doom and gloom.
And of course, eleven year old Sam Green, in his first stage role. He turns in a mature performance and portrays William’s vulnerability and weary acceptance of his life with small shrugs, or by turning his huge eyes on the audience. It is hard to believe that this is his first lead role.
The first act ambles along which makes the second act all the more shocking. William returns to London to look after his mother. Here special praise must go to Sharon Laws as the bible-bashing Mrs Beech, who berates William for befriending Jews. She hides a terrible secret of her own which has enormous consequences for William.
The role could easily be ‘pantomime villain’ territory. But her measured, convincing performance, whilst not eliciting sympathy makes you question how she became so hard and unyielding.
It is an uplifting play, wonderfully directed by Ian Brown and Simon Kennedy who meet the challenges of staging a show that incorporates multiple locations and a host of characters head on. In doing so they give their audiences a majestic theatrical treat.
The ensemble cast were incredible. However the scene stealer is Sammy the sheepdog. Consisting of nothing more than a mask and material, ‘puppet Sam’ was so skilfully handled by Noel Harris that you could almost smell him.
The Chipstead Players are proof that you do not need West End high-budget shows to enjoy theatre. Strong direction and performances ensure the Chipstead Players compete with any production bigger companies can produce. Community theatre at its finest.
A highly enjoyable adaptation of a much-loved book.
Goodnight Mr Tom. A play by David Wood. Directed by Ian Brown and Simon Kennedy.
5-9 & 12-15 January, at the Courtyard Theatre, Chipstead.
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