REVIEW: Goodnight Mister Tom - Alnwick Theatre Club, Alnwick Playhouse

Sold out - the first night of Goodnight Mister Tom. Picture by Andy Hunt
Sold out - the first night of Goodnight Mister Tom. Picture by Andy Hunt

That old theatrical adage, never work with animals or children, was tested to the max in Alnwick Theatre Club's latest production, Goodnight Mister Tom.

WC Fields, who coined the phrase, would be turning in his grave if he knew that the amateur thespians of Alnwick were attempting to perform with children AND an animal.

But without either, this production would not have been anywhere near as endearing nor, it has to be said, funny and poignant.

I arrived at the Playhouse to be greeted by a poster advertising the performances, with a Sold Out sign stuck across it. How fantastic to see such support for a local production on a Wednesday night - the first of four.

Goodnight Mister Tom was originally a novel written for children by English author Michelle Magorian in 1981, then adapted for the screen and stage.

It begins in September 1939, with Britain on the brink of the Second World War and children being evacuated out of London into the countryside. They include young William Beech, who leaves behind a fatherless life of abuse and strong religious beliefs. He is handed into the reluctant care of Mr Tom Oakley, or simply Mister Tom to William, a reclusive widower in his 60s who lives in the village of Little Weirwold.

Youngsters Archie Braid, Niamh Cullen, Cameron Cullen and Aidan Stuart with Lenny the Labrador.

Youngsters Archie Braid, Niamh Cullen, Cameron Cullen and Aidan Stuart with Lenny the Labrador.

So begins a bond that deepens as the play progresses and the story develops.

The characters were vividly portrayed, particularly old Mister Tom by Gary Brown, who was suitably ponderous and measured. He was the reliable glue that held everything together, slowly revealing the old man's soft interior, through to a dramatic, emotionally-charged finale.

There were plenty of cameos and Helen Gee-Graham was also worthy of special mention for her commanding performance of villager Mrs Fletcher, alongside the assured Olivia Waller and Nick Biggers as the Hartridges. Antonia Hoskins-Brown was properly scary as William's god-fearing mum.

But it was the youngsters who really brought this production to light, especially the calm maturity of Cameron Cullen as William and the madcap antics of Archie Braid as his buddy Zach. They develop a touching, enduring friendship that the audience warmed to and appreciated. The delightful scene in which the two boys discuss where babies come from was hilarious.

The pair have a big future on the stage, in particular 10-year-old Archie, who reminded me of a young Tyler Angus, who lit up the Playhouse stage on many occasions in school productions.

They were ably supported by Harry Clark-Thompson as the bully George Fletcher, who gets his comeuppance, Sophie Murray as Carrie Miller, and Aidan Stuart as Billy Miller.

Another star of the show was Lenny, the black Labrador, who spent more time on stage than any animal I have ever seen and performed impeccably, with the waggiest tail ever. I hope he was given a big treat and lots of hugs for his efforts.

Although the evening is ultimately uplifting, the over-riding feeling generated is one of sadness at the futility of war.

The staging was impressive, with the space being convincingly divided into Tom's home, a graveyard where his wife and child were buried, a library/doctor's surgery and London, complete with a tube station doubling up as an air-raid shelter. The costumes, expert lighting and use of songs and broadcasts (including speeches from Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill) from the time also helped transport the audience back to a frightening world.

There were a few first-night nerves, muffed lines and a slow pace that will improve as the week progresses, but the motto for Alnwick Theatre Club after this experience should be ALWAYS work with animals and children.

Goodnight Mister Tom is on each evening until Saturday (August 26) at 7.30pm. For tickets, visit the Playhouse website or call the box office on 01665 510785.

THE CAST

Gary Brown (Mr Tom Oakley); Cameron Cullen (William Beech); Archie Braid (Zach); Harry Clark-Thompson (George Fletcher); Sophie Murray (Carrie Miller); Aidan Stuart (Billy Miller); Helen Gee-Graham (Mrs Fletcher/Social Worker); John Firth (Charlie Ruddles/London Policeman); Olivia Waller (Mrs Hartridge/Nurse); Nick Biggers (Mr Hartridge/Mr Stelton); Heather Howey (Dr Little); Maggie Wallace (Miss Thorne); Jean Goodfellow (Gladys); Mary Frater (Billeting Officer/Nursing Sister); Susan Joyce (Mrs Miller); Alex Clark-Thompson (Vicar/London ARP Warden); Antonia Hoskins-Brown (Mrs Beech); Niamh Cullen; Fiona Cuthbert; Edmund Turner; Holly Robinson.