Goodnight Mister Tom is a story close to my heart. It's one I've known since I was a young boy, when I saw John Thaw and Nick Robinson in the leading roles as Tom Oakley and William Beech respectively.
Now the story - originally a novel from Michelle Magorian - has come to the stage at the Opera House, Manchester, shining a light on the innocence of children and the loss of it through war. With a simple yet effective set design the show was off to a great start before a single actor had even stepped out. Weaving war songs such as 'Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye' throughout as well as excerpts from the Prime Minister's speech of how Britain was at war with Germany, the ominous feeling of dread was perfectly captured.
Alex Taylor-McDowall is young William Beech through the show's entire Manchester run, and he does a fantastic job at portraying a youngster simply looking for love and acceptance. Coming from a home where religion is manipulated for his mother's brutal corporal punishments, he discovers that life does have some meaning when he's sent as a London evacuee to live with Tom Oakley in Dorset.
David Troughton here plays Mister Tom, a widower at first reluctant to take in a child but a man who grows into a caring and loving father figure as time progresses. Through looking after young Will he learns more about himself than he has done in the past 40 years since the death of his wife and son. Teaching the boy how to read and write as well as stand on his own two feet, the pair trade off valuable life lessons and become inescapably bonded.
With the pair lives Sammy the dog, and Elisa De Grey is masterful on stage as she truly brings the creature to life through mesmerising puppetry. All at once you'll forget there's a person behind the animal, as she sniffs and pants, barks and growls her way through the show. It's just a gorgeous take on how to allow Sammy into the story.
Becoming close friends with comical character Zach - played in Manchester by standout actor Oliver Loades - Will manages to eventually work his way into the hearts of more of the children in the village, becoming friendly with George (Clark Devlin), Carrie (Martha Seignior) and Ginnie (Hollie Taylor). It's the children that steal the show and the hearts of the audience, but that's not to say the incredible cast made up of both adults and youngsters alike don't set a fire burning under everybody watching.
Enjoying his own personal bliss, Will's new perfect life and world is to be shattered when his mother writes and says he must come home because she's not well.
Melle Stewart steps into the role of the unforgiveable Mrs Beech, a woman dealing with severe mental health issues who cannot abide her child and is now dealing with the birth of a new daughter. As soon as Will returns home he has to deal with accusations of thievery and lying and, when he tells his mother he's become friends with Jewish evacuee Zach, it doesn't take long for the woman who's supposed to bring joy and love into Will's life to be reduced back to one who instead beats him.
With war as the backdrop of the production, casualties are always expected and even as a veteran to this story, when they come they're not any less difficult to sit through. The actors ellicit real emotion from the audience, packing a punch with their beautifully poignant performances. It may be cliché to say, but there wasn't a dry eye in the theatre when all was said and done.
Though there are tender moments this is a story that allows the good of the world to take the spotlight as well as the bad. It's reflective of real life and for that it must be praised. We may wish that things turned out differently for some of the characters, but that wouldn't be realistic. Goodnight Mister Tom is as real as they come.
Goodnight Mister Tom continues its run at the Opera House in Manchester through to Saturday, February 27.