The marvellous Mister Tom

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Children’s classic Goodnight Mister Tom is heading to Sunderland with its enduring tale of friendship. Katy Wheeler speaks to the man at the helm of the show, David Wood, about bringing Mister Tom to life.

SPEAKING to David Wood OBE, it’s easy to see why he’s become the country’s leading writer and director of plays and musicals for children.

His passion for the art form and its ability to captivate young minds is palpable.

In the past a who’s who of children’s novels including The Tiger Who Came For Tea, James and the Giant Peach, Tom’s Midnight Garden and George’s Marvellous Medicine have been sprinkled with his theatrical magic.

Now, his new play of Goodnight Mister Tom, a Chichester Festival Theatre production, is set to wow Wearside.

Speaking about why he chose to adapt the much-loved novel by Michelle Magorian for the stage, he said: “I think it’s got all the great elements of a story and it felt very theatrical.

“Plus, I also know Michelle Magorian well. I did the TV screenplay for her second book Back Home, so I got to know her through that. It took a long time to get the rights for Mister Tom and the right production.

“It’s very much been a labour of love, it’s a very special book.”

Set during the dark and dangerous build up to the Second World War, Goodnight Mister Tom follows sad William Beech who is evacuated to the idyllic English countryside and builds a remarkable and moving friendship with the elderly recluse Tom Oakley.

It’s a story that’s managed to strike a chord with countless readers to become a world-wide literary favourite.

As well as winning the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and being commended for the Carnegie Medal, it spawned a Bafta Award-winning TV film, starring John Thaw.

“The idea of a child and an elderly man healing themselves is very powerful,” said David.

“The boy has been maltreated and Mr Tom’s wife has died, so he’s become a recluse. But together they win through and that’s the moving nature of the story.

“It’s a tough, dark story and there is often a lot of Kleenex used by the cast, but it resolves itself in a happy, positive way. The audience come out of the theatre smiling through the tears.

“It’s one of those stories where you do actually feel something, you aren’t just sat there watching, you become emotionally involved.”

It’s the ability of theatre to reach inside someone’s soul and tug at their heartstrings which makes David relish the field.

He began writing as a student at Oxford University in the sixties.

He wrote his first play for children in 1967 and has since written more than 70 more which have been performed across the world including: The Gingerbread Man; The Owl And The Pussycat Went To See; The Selfish Shellfish; The See-Saw Tree; Save The Human; The Ideal Gnome Expedition and The Plotters Of Cabbage Patch Corner.

So what attracts him to children’s theatre in particular?

“I find children as an audience a challenge” he explains. “They don’t have the theatre manners of an adult audience, they won’t just clap for the sake of clapping.

“They are more volatile and if they are bored they tell you they’re bored by talking.

“But when you get it right, when they want to know what comes next, when they are sitting there entranced, that is the most exciting thing, because I’ve won the challenge.

“I guess it’s a power complex in that I want to manipulate them. In the same way that an author wants to manipulate an audience into turning the next page. I want to manipulate them into wanting to know what happens next.”

For many in David’s audience his show is an introduction to the world of theatre.

He said: “That communal experience is so important, especially to young people who spend a lot of their time in front of a screen. It’s like going to a football match, the experience of watching it on the screen never compares to being there.

“Everybody has the right to experience that in their primary school lives.”

The attraction of a good children’s story is one that never grows old for this master dramatist.

“Very often what I look for is interesting characters and a good story line with twists and turns and a story where there is fairness and justice,” he explains.

“One of the first things we learn to say as children is ‘it’s not fair’, whether it be about another child who has a bigger piece of chocolate or something else. That’s why people root for the boy in Mister Tom because he’s the victim of injustice.

“And it’s why Cinderella is one of the most popular stories ever, because we recognise the injustice and we root for her. It’s that, that emotionally involves us.”

He added: “I hope people who know the book will find it faithful to the story, but even if you haven’t read the book, it doesn’t matter because the narrative is so clear. You will smile, you’ll laugh, you’ll be educated – whether you’re a smallie or a biggie.”

* Goodnight Mister Tom comes to the Sunderland Empire from February 5-9. Tickets priced £10-£19.50 are available from the Box Office on 0844 871 3022 and online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.

* AUTHOR Michelle Magorian was inspired to write Goodnight Mister Tom after hearing her mother’s tales about her time as a nurse in the war.

Published in 1981, it has been translated into 11 languages and won awards in the UK, America and Australia.

Her latest novel, Just Henry, won the Costa Award for children’s fiction in 2008 and in 2011 was adapted into a TV film starring Sheila Hancock.