Tim Hughes is left charmed and moved by a stunning performance of modern children's classic Goodnight Mister Tom

YOU know you’ve witnessed great theatre when you leave the venue not laughing, smiling or chatting excitedly – but feeling choked.

And so it was, with a smudged tear in my eye and an unmanly lump in my throat, that I left the New Theatre after the opening night of its enchanting week-long production of Goodnight Mister Tom.

Michelle Magorian’s sharply-observed tale of life in wartime England has the feel of a classic, but was actually only written in the 1981. It has, however, been taken to the hearts of children – and the parents who have read to them.

It tells the story of William Beech, a malnourished, flighty urchin from a London slum, who is evacuated to the countryside on the eve of the Second World War. He is billeted with the gruff Tom Oakley (David Troughton – son of the second Doctor Who, Patrick).

The story follows Will’s transformation from a painfully shy waif, beaten and abused by his mentally-ill mother, to well-rounded popular boy in the wholesome surroundings of a Dorset village. Of course it’s not quite as simple as that though, with Will plunged back into the misery of blitzed Deptford – and the equally depressing clutches of his deranged mum and the medical establishment.

Will’s story mirrors that of the nation in its darkest hour, and touches on some very dark themes indeed, all of which are handled deftly – but unflinchingly – in a production aimed at children but which delighted the many adults in the audience too.

The stars of the show, outstandingly adapted for the stage by David Wood, are young Will himself – a willowy Joe Reynolds who managed to project his wavering voice to the back of the room without losing his sense of fragility (a feat not managed by quite all in the ensemble) – and Troughton for a heartwarming, tear-jerking performance as a simple countryman torn apart by grief and uncertainty and at odds with the world – but with a heart of gold.

But the surprise star of the show is Mr Tom’s dog, Sammy – or rather his ‘handler’ Elisa de Grey, who controls this lifelike puppet with the same skill and attention to animal anatomy and behaviour and psychology as the puppeteers of War Horse. Pure perfection.

A squirrel, and flock of birds are handled with the same deft skill of someone who has also spent far too long studying wildlife.

A delight from beginning to end. I defy you to leave with dry eyes.


Goodnight Mister Tom continues at the New Theatre until Saturday