It is certainly strange approaching the Phoenix Theatre without seeing the usual Blood Brothers signage and even stranger to sit in the auditorium and not be faced with the set of Mrs Johnstone’s council house crumbling before your very eyes. Goodnight Mr Tom is the first new production at the Phoenix in 21 years since the closure of Willy Russell’s famed musical…and what a show to start off the Phoenix’s new era!
Goodnight Mr Tom, adapted from Michelle Magorian’s award novel, tells the tale of a war torn Britain through a young evacuee sent from London to the idyllic Dorset countryside. However it soon becomes clear that even the most welcoming of havens can be devastated by war. Considering the show runs over the Christmas season, it is not exactly a traditional festive tale of tidings of comfort and joy…or is it?
The production was a visual treat. Director Angus Jackson and designer Robert Innes Hopkins worked together to create a symbolic use of colour, the most apparent of which was the stark contrast between the grey scale London and the bright colours of Dorset. Furthermore the transformation of evacuee, William, into a young healthy country boy was highlighted by him changing from his grey ‘London’ clothes into a vibrant green jumper and back again on his return to the city. Similarly the personality of the young and vivacious Zach is reflected in his rainbow coloured jumper, that is later poignantly passed on to William. It was subtle stylistic touches such as this that made the play a cut above the norm. Also the surprise transformation of the stage in the second act was genuinely astonishing and delightfully unexpected, further defining the different locations within the play. The show was truly a delight to watch!
Similarly effective was the use of onstage puppetry, most notably in the border collie Sam but also in the various other woodland animals that populated the small Dorset Village. Sam, with the aid of an expert puppeteer, behaved like a real life dog, which added to the magic of the show as audience members were able to suspend their belief, which really is the marking of a good play. It is worth noting the man behind the puppets is Toby Olié, who has both been in War Horse and worked with the Handspring Puppet Company, who created the notorious animals for the show. Olié certainly brings the high standards of his theatrical credits to Goodnight Mr Tom.
Other than the acting veteran Oliver Ford Davis, who played Mr Tom with all the believability one would expect from such an established actor, it is difficult to single out specific actors as there were no weak links in the chain; every performer from ensemble to principle were able to deliver solid and often emotional performances. The book is hard hitting, and without a strong cast to back that up the effect of Magorian’s text would have been lost. Luckily this was not the case and often I was moved to tears. There. I admit it.
Whilst at first Goodnight Mr Tom may seem like an odd choice of play over the festive season, the themes of redemption and love in the face of tears and bloodshed is perhaps more truthful and heart warming than any other Christmas tale I can think of. This show is one to watch.
Goodnight Mr Tom runs through 27th November – 26th January 2013. Click here for tickets.
Where I Sat: Dress Circle, D18. This seat had a clear and uninterrupted view of the stage. I would definitely recommend it.
Recommended for: Fans of plays wit a bit of content. This show is not a slap dash musical and requires some attention.