By: David Wood
Directed by: Angus Jackson
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre
Date: Friday 4th February 2011
This was a sweet little story, with a surprising amount of darkness, and unusual in that it clearly worked for audience members of all ages. I hadn’t read the original book, nor seen the TV version (Steve had), so I came to this completely fresh. I enjoyed it more than I expected, and although this was early in the run (it starts at Chichester and then goes on tour), I felt that they’d got up to a good standard already, no mean feat given that there are three teams of children to cover the tour dates.
The play tells the story of young William, who is evacuated prior to the outbreak of WWII, along with many other London children. He’s billeted on an old curmudgeon called Tom Oakley (as William’s surname is Beech, I thought they were well matched). [Actually, it’s Beach, so not such a good match except sound-wise] Naturally, the child overcomes his difficulties which were due to the abuse he’s suffered from his mother, while the old man learns to open his heart again after many years mourning his lost wife and baby. In other hands, this could be sentimental schmaltz, but here it’s a moving tale, with many ups and downs, and a real feeling of the community that William ends up being part of. About the only thing missing was the grown-up William as narrator, and possibly all the better for that. There was a good balance between the two stories, with neither of the main characters dominating, and good support from everyone else, especially Sammy the dog.
Now, they say never work with children or animals. We’ve also seen that puppets can be a problem as well. So when we get animal puppets within a few minutes, we know we’re in for a good time, while the actors…… Well, the actors will just have to accept they’re being permanently upstaged. At the post show, Angus Jackson told us that he’d made a similar comment to Oliver Ford Davies during rehearsal, to the effect that he needn’t worry about how he said a particular line as there would be a dog on stage at that point, so no one would be listening to him.
Sammy was lovely. Laura Cubitt, who ‘played’ Sammy, was remarkable, even getting the dog to breathe while he was sitting or lying down, waiting for the next bit of action. In the post-show, she was asked if she’d done any ballet training, and she had, but even so, she found herself getting stiff sometimes with the awkward positions, so Sammy occasionally moved around a bit, sniffing things, to give her a break.
The set worked pretty well, although I felt it was one area which may improve with practice. There are a lot of changes, and occasionally the pace slowed a little too much for me in the first half, although the second half worked much better. The platform in the middle of the stage which served as just about everything from a train platform to a stage to Mr Tom’s house to a shop to everywhere else in the country, rose up reveal the dingy, grimy flat where William’s mother lives, and to which William returns, reluctantly, to find he has a baby sister. His mother is clearly a nutter – she’s obsessive about denying William any fun, and has rules forbidding any sort of normal life, although as she’s produced another baby she’s clearly a hypocrite where sex is concerned. She ties William up under the eaves and leaves him with the baby cradled in his arms, and when Mr Tom finds them (he’s come to London because he’s worried about not hearing anything from William for weeks), the baby is dead.
William ends up in hospital, and because his mother can’t be found, the authorities are about to send him to a special nursing home where he can be tortured by psychiatrists instead. Mr Tom helps him escape, and takes him back to Dorset, where eventually he adopts William as his own son. All looks good for the lad, until his best friend, ????, also returns to London when his father dies, and gets killed by a bomb. It’s a tough time for William, and for us, but overall, we manage to get through it with the help of Mr Tom and Sammy (especially Sammy).
This was a very good production, and I hope they have a great time on tour. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again if it comes back this way.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me