Review: Hope and goodness win out in tear-jerker at Coventry theatre

Malachi Neat as William and Keith Railton as Mr Tom with Sammy the dog
Malachi Neat as William and Keith Railton as Mr Tom with Sammy the dog

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Goodnight Mr Tom at the Criterion Theatre, Coventry

Goodnight Mr Tom is the perfect play for the season, a Dickensian tale with ample shades of light and dark and a core of good feeling.

Young Willy Beech is sent as a wartime evacuee to lodge with curmudgeonly old Tom Oakley. It’s obvious that the child is disturbed. He comes with bruises all over his body and a nervous temperament, very much a stranger to the countryside, unfamiliar with dogs and birds and unable to read and write. He’s a nice lad, though, and it isn’t long before Willy manages to find a place for himself in Tom’s home. The neighbours are at first suspicious but hostility to outsiders is only skin deep. His journey to acceptance is eased by the eccentric and lovable Zach Wrench a joyful, not to say joyous fellow evacuee.

All seems well for a while, as friendship and natural goodness blossom in this bucolic environment. But dark clouds are on the horizon. War claims its victims abroad and Willy receives a letter from his mother calling him back to London. When he gets there he finds she has somehow acquired a baby girl “from Jesus”. We quickly see that his mother is the cause of Willy’s bruises and fears. She’s a religious fanatic and clearly ill in ways she doesn’t realise. But evil cannot triumph over good, and Willy’s fortunes are turned in the nick of time.

Keith Railton delivers a heart-wrenching and beautifully sustained performance as Tom Oakley. His love for the boy is palpable. Malachi Neat is so endearing as Willy, a fragile, gentle boy who finds happiness at last. Joss Wozencroft as Zach almost steals the show: he is a marvellous clown-like character in rainbow coloured clothes, riding around on stage on a bicycle shouting Callooh! Callay! Jan Nightingale is truly terrifying as Willy’s mother, a woman teetering on the edge of insanity. The large cast work together well, and there is a real sense of faith in the essential goodness of the story of the rescued little boy.

I can’t leave this review without mention of one other star: Sammy the dog, a marvellous puppet wielded expertly by Emma Withers. Sammy embodies the heart of this play, and there were a good many tears shed by the audience at the happy ending.

Goodnight Mr Tom is an excellent choice of entertainment for those who want something deeper, richer and ultimately more nourishing than the usual Christmas fare.