Decency and humour in dark days of WWII

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City.

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

The Christmas play at the Barn Theatre this year is based on the novel Goodnight Mr Tom, (later a successful film) by Michelle Magorian, adapted for the stage by David Wood.

It's a slightly unusual choice for this slot; not the usual light-hearted mixture of comedy and music aimed at small kids and their families, but a more serious piece, though often comic. And quite suitable for kids, I should add, though probably not under five year-olds.

Set at the very beginning of the Second World War, it's about a boy called William who is evacuated from south-east London to a small Dorset village, where he is billeted with childless widower Tom Oakley, the “Mr Tom” of the title.

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City.

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

The boy seems to have been ill-treated in the past, and takes a while to get used to village life in general and the local kids in particular. The cantankerous Mr Tom has no experience of child care, but is decent and caring.

Before long the two build an affectionate relationship, but external events intervene to bring William back to the Blitz in London, to the sorrow of them both. What happens after that is an accurate account not just of the hardships and tragedies of that time, but also of the strong sense of community and mutual help that pervaded the nation. And yes, there's a happy ending.

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City.

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

Pete Dawson is at the very centre of the play as Tom Oakley, and gives a convincing and highly sensitive performance as the grumpy but benevolent widower. The part of William is shared between the twin brothers Charlie and Harrison Evans; I saw Harrison, but I am assured that his performance is indistinguishable from his brother's. He is certainly a natural, highly believable young actor who adds enormously to the success of the production.

The other children's roles are played by equally gifted youngsters: Isobella Martin as the clever Carrie, Tom Hopley as the ruffian George,who becomes a good friend to William, and Freddie Samuels as the flamboyant son of actor parents.

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A special mention to Tom's dog Sammy, represented by a charming puppet built and operated by Tristan Cameron. One came to believe he was alive – the magic of live theatre!

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City.

Goodnight Mr Tom at the Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

Surprisingly for such a small theatre, there are all told 23 actors involved, an enormous challenge at this difficult time to director Siobhán Hill Elam, who has also been obliged to take on a couple of minor acting roles. Quite an achievement.

This is a beautifully written play: a truthful, often moving, sometimes funny account of life in Britain at the most threatening period in our history. Above all, a reaffirmation of the decency of ordinary people.

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