THEATRE REVIEW: Goodnight Mr Tom ★★★★
Pushing boundaries and bringing forward stories with hard-hitting themes is something the Cheltenham Operatics Society (CODS) has of late not shied away from, with the likes of The Producers, Our House, and now Goodnight Mr Tom, arguably the bleakest of the recent trio involving child violence and the horror of war, but teaches most importantly the value of choosing your own family, and not having to side with those who just share the same blood.
The production straight away opens to the first meeting and our own introductions between Mr Oakley (Jason Blackburn) and William Beech (Lex Recine), in what is quite possibly the best casting CODs has achieved in recent memory; Blackburn's disheveled and rather grumpy portrayal of Mr Tom (the name given from William) at the start slowly starts to break as he volunteers to house William when the notion of a second war is imminent. Recine takes the emotion of fragility to an exceptional level which instantly warms us as an audience to care for the child, with a very early sign of a belt pulled from a worn paper bag only confirming the terror he must have felt living in fear before, judging by the bruises on his knees and William subsequently cowering under the table. For a young actor, the vulnerability from Recine is astounding, but to also learn a plethora of lines and movement whilst surely juggling in education elsewhere away from the rehearsal period shows the true dedication he has for the art form.
As for the rest of the company, though many multirole and leave a pleasant lasting effort, Sophie Flowers should get credit for her stern and unpleasant stature to Mrs Beech (Williams mum) that would make any child want to run away to the countryside, and to which she exuberated perfectly. Her diction and emphasis on some of the interactions between her son were chilling at times, and along with the reappearance of the belt we saw at the beginning of the play, audible groans could be heard from the audience as we knew exactly what was to happen next, which altogether was a world away from Flowers kind and brief appearances as Mrs Hartridge, the local school teacher back in the countryside, where Mr Tom subsides.
Director Elizabeth Maisey has done a stellar job here in using the younger child cast to thrive in their own right, and I wouldn't be surprised if Zach (Connor May), a new friend for William to make friends with, ends up being everyone's favourite character, as May is incredibly rich in emotion and attitude, stealing every scene he appears in, and not just because of his rainbow jumper. It makes you question whether May was specifically cast in the role to make the impact of a plot point much later in the production hit you even more poignantly, as he portrays Zach with such warmth and kindness. Recine and May share some real tender moments on stage as the two young boys and they are both captivating to watch as their friendship blossoms over the course of the production.
Overall, though the pacing at times was a little fray and some moments of bare stage stalled the action, CODs production of Goodnight Mr Tom is a beautiful piece of theatre with a story tackled so honest and tenderly from the whole cast under the watchful eye of director Elizabeth Maisey, but most importantly the exception casting of the two leads at heart is what will in the long run make this performance stand out from the rest!