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Goodnight Mister Tom review at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London – ‘heartfelt’

Alex Taylor-McDowall and David Troughton in Goodnight Mister Tom. Photo: Dan Tsantilis Alex Taylor-McDowall and David Troughton in Goodnight Mister Tom. Photo: Dan Tsantilis

Chichester Festival Theatre has become a near ubiquitous presence in the West End with transfers of shows such as Gypsy and Guys and Dolls, but Goodnight Mister Tom also belongs to the Sussex venue, first premiered out-of-season in February 2011, and since then enjoying an extensive touring life and prior West End season at the Phoenix in 2012. It won the Olivier for best entertainment in 2013.

Now it returns to town for a Christmas season prior to another national tour, and if it sits outside the usual Chichester box of starry revivals, it is rapidly establishing a reputation as a modern and modest children’s classic. It tells the compassionate tale of William Beech, a physically and psychologically damaged young London boy who, during the Second World War, finds a new life, confidence and even literacy skills when he is evacuated to Dorset, where he is housed with the titular lonely widower.

If David Wood’s script tends towards the episodic, Angus Jackson’s production provides a fluidity in its lovingly staging. It is blessed with the heartfelt warmth that David Troughton brings to the slow thaw of his initial reluctance to take the boy on, and the deeply poignant portrait of friendship it shows between Alex Taylor-McDowall’s William and Oliver Loades as fellow evacuee Zach.

Goodnight Mister Tom also doesn’t shy from the mental illness that afflicts young William’s shrill religious mother (Melle Stewart) or schoolyard bullying. It’s a notably adult approach to children’s storytelling that doesn’t patronise but believes that children respond to being given the facts and told the truth unsentimentally.

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Like War Horse, but without its big effects, this is a tender, aching portrait of the effect of Britain's wartime efforts on children