Goodnight Mister Tom
Nineteenth-century fiction is full of affable old coves whose greatest pleasure in life comes from being the benefactor to some deserving but indigent young lad. Of late the type has been in unaccountably short supply, but in her award-winning children’s novel, Goodnight Mister Tom (1981), Michelle Magorian created a classic example of the kind.
Magorian’s story, sympathetically dramatised for theatre by David Wood, is set at the time of the Second World War and pairs an elderly and reclusive rustic widower, Tom Oakley (Oliver Ford-Davies), with young William Beech, a starveling evacuee from Deptford.
William, it soon becomes clear, is starved of more than physical nourishment. He is covered in bruises, unable to read, cowers at the sight of Tom’s sheepdog, Sammy (an engaging puppet, adroitly handled by Elisa de Grey), and his luggage contains a bible and a belt — the purpose of the latter, it turns out, is to chastise him.
Tom has lived alone since the deaths of his wife and infant son some 40 years earlier. But he is touched by William’s misery and his kindness begins to transform the boy, who learns to read and makes friends, including with his fellow evacuee, Zach, the extrovert offspring of Thespians.
Under the unaccustomed regime of approval William flourishes until he is summoned back to London by his mother — a militant Christian of the fire-and-brimstone variety.