Ged Clapson
Ged Clapson

Goodnight Mr Tom: June 2014

As produced by the Avalon Theatre Company and presented at the Charles Cryer Studio Theatre, Carshalton, 24 to 28 June 2014. 

William Beech comes from an abusive home life in London shortly before the Second World War. When he is evacuated to the village of Little Weirwold (supposedly in Devon), he is placed under the guardianship of Tom Oakley. Tom was widowed 40 years previously and is very reluctant to take this young boy into his home. But he realises he has no choice, saying it will only be for a night.

Tom can't help noticing that Will's limbs are covered in bruises, which, it emerges, were inflicted by his single mother. She claims to be a God-fearing woman and stipulated that her son was to stay with someone religious or who lives near a church. But she has a secret alter ego that has resulted in her abusing Will extensively, both psychologically and physically.

On checking the contents of Will's bag, Tom discovers that he's brought no pyjamas with him: he offers him one of his own shirts to sleep in. And when he pulls out a leather belt, the boy becomes breathless and hysterical and starts trembling. A note from Mrs Beech reveals that she expects it to be used for discipline but Tom informs Will that he has nothing to fear while staying in his house: "So we can forget about this old belt."

The role of Will was played in alternate performances by Kai (above) and Laurence (below).

It becomes clear that Will has never slept in a bed before: at home, his mother made him sleep under a table. It is a new experience for the lad who attempts to crawl under the bed that Tom offers him, rather than into it. Once he slips between the sheets, Will is amazed by how comfortable it is.

When Will emptied his pockets in readiness for bed, he pulled out a scrap of paper with a drawing on it. It did not go unnoticed by Tom who immediately spotted the boy's artistic talents.

 

Once Will is in bed, Tom shows him pictures of cows - something totally new to the boy - and offers to show him Ivor's animals when they go to fetch milk from the dairy the next day.

Will is also excited by the prospect of seeing houses 'with straw roofs' and Tom promises he'll see plenty of them. As he leaves the boy to get some sleep, Tom notices how bright the moon is ("A waste of time having a blackout with a moon like that!") and reminds Will to say his prayers before going to sleep. Will asks him for his Bible reading but Tom is unable to think of a suitable story: "Will tomorrow do you?" he asks.

'Goodnight Mr Tom'
'Goodnight Mr Tom': title song. Music by Gary Carpenter, lyrics by Michelle Magorian.
Ged Clapson as Tom Oakley; William Beech sung by Kai Cannon.
Accompaniment: Philippa Lucas (piano) & Kevin Hardcastle (percussion)
ZOOM0005.mp3
MP3 audio file [3.7 MB]

Tom and Will then sing the title song (link above). Having instructed Will to call him Tom, Will wistfully wishes 'Mr Tom' goodnight as he snuggles under the blanket. Meanwhile, Tom struggles to come to terms with what has been thrust upon him - on the one hand recognising that the boy is in distress and in need of material and emotional support but at the same time reluctant to have his routine of 40 years disturbed. He decides to take Will to the vicarage the next day for Mrs Peters to take care of him. But then, on noting how flimsy his shoes are, he vows to get him some boots. Tom is clearly perplexed and torn between the bubble of his solitary life and the needs of the boy. 'Goodnight Mr Tom' concludes with Tom deciding that Noah's ark would be a good Bible story to tell him in the morning and Will slips off to sleep, smiling broadly.

The next morning, Tom has invited Dr Little round to check William over. She concludes that he is obviously happy and - apart from the bruises that Tom has drawn her attention to - is fit. The doctor suggests Will needs company of a child his own age and tells him about her evacuee, an energetic and vivacious boy from a theatrical family called Zach.

At the village school, Will meets Zach who immediately takes a liking to him. Zach - the son of theatrical parents - recognises similarities between them: they are both creative and isolated. He feels a deep empathy for Will because neither of them fits in. They strike up an instant friendship but Will is still reluctant to disclose too much about himself, hiding his artistic talents from Zach - at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, Tom has enrolled Will in the library and shocks the villagers by shopping for clothes (for the boy) and paints. They reflect on how he had not visited the art shop since his wife, Rachel, died 40 years previously. They contemplate what the declaration of war will mean to their lives when Tom joins them in the village hall and - much to their surprise - volunteers.

 

Looking towards heaven, Tom addresses his late wife, saying it was because of Will that he was volunteering. Then he too ponders on the effect war might have upon Little Weirwold: "Don't seem like we're at war at all!"

When Will comes home from school, he can't hide his disappointment. He's been placed in the 'babies class' because he can't read. Tom immediately vows to correct that and pulls out paper and a pencil, saying he'll start by teaching Will how to write his own name.

 

But they are soon disturbed by several knocks on the door. First, Zach appears, announcing that he's upset Will and he aren't in the same class at school. But that will make no difference to their friendship. Then some of the village children arrive ...

As their way of welcoming the young evacuee to their community, the children have come to invite Will to join them on a picnic. Zach invites himself along too and the children agree - albeit reluctantly. Then Charlie Ruddles, the air-raid warden, appears and castigates Tom for allowing light to be visible from his doorway. Tom dismisses his pomposity and the group dissolves into laughter.

A little while later, Tom organises a surprise birthday party for Will. Before the guests arrive, he presents him with his presents: a balaclava to keep his head and ears warm "when the wind's nippy", a box of paints, a ruler, eraser, pencils and brushes.

Will has never experienced such generosity and affection before. Clearly moved, he invites Tom to hang up the drawings he's done and, as he does so, sings about the excitement he gets from drawing. By creating pictures, he says he feels alive and is able to express himself.

The birthday party guests arrive: Zach and the other village children and George's mother (Gwen) with a birthday cake and candles. Zach admires Will's pictures and tells him he wants him to paint the backcloth for the concert he's planning. As Will attempts to blow out the candles, Zach and Carrie (who wants to go to high school) explain the tradition of making a wish - another new experience for Will.

Before the party disperses, Will astounds the group by laughing. Worried, he asks Tom whether he's done something wrong. "No, boy," Tom replies tenderly. "You just laughed. Ent no one ever heard you do that before."

 

After Gwen and the children leave, Will finishes the rest of the birthday cake and is "as sick as a dog".

Three weeks later, the choirmaster is called up and Tom is asked to play the church organ and help organise the village concert. He tells Will that he used to play a lot when his wife was alive and goes on to sing about her. Tom describes her as wild - "like a poppy in the wind", and suddenly her spirit appears in the room. Rachel liked to dance and listen to her husband play the church organ. They used to save up their money and go into town to buy pots of paints for her: she drew and painted, just like Will. But then both Tom's wife and their baby died of scarlatina (scarlet fever) and it was left to Tom, as the village grave-digger, to bury them. That was 40 years ago, and since then, he explains to Will, he has shut himself away: "Life grew ever bleak without her".

'Rachel'
Tom sings about his late wife, Rachel. Music by Gary Carpenter; lyrics by Michelle Magorian.
Rachel.mp3
MP3 audio file [3.4 MB]

Christmas is approaching and Zach has recruited the villagers to take part in a concert to raise morale. This is where Zach the performer feels most satisfied, since he is not allowed to take part in the Nativity Play because he is Jewish. Will has painted a spectacular backdrop of Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly for the concert and Tom has been talked into playing the music.

But their jollity is short-lived. Tom has received a telegram from Mrs Beech - Will's mother. She says she is unwell and needs her son to return to London to look after her. Other evacuees have already been recalled and Zach is upset that his new friend is leaving as well. Tom tells Will to continue his drawing while he's back home and to let him know if he needs more pencils. As Will prepares to leave, it is clear they have become very close and will both miss each other.

 

Act One concludes with Will looking dejected as he is reunited with his mother.

Once Will returns home to London, he discovers that his mother has a new baby - a gift from Jesus, she tells him. Mrs Beech forbids Will to interact in any way with the baby and it is obvious she is already being severely neglected. The extent of Mrs Beech's mental illness becomes increasingly evident as she accuses him of stealing the presents he has brought her. Her violent anger erupts when Will tells her that he has made friends with Zach - a Jewish evacuee.

Back in Weirwold, Tom shares his distress that he has not heard from Will for two months with Zach. He has become nostalgic, looking at photos of his late wife that he has not got out of their box for some time. Zach argues that they should go to London to find his friend, which Tom resists until he senses that Rachel would have agreed. He tells the evacuee to remain in the village while he sets off in search of Will.

In London, Tom begins his search for Will. Taking a bus to Deptford, he encounters the severity of the blitz. The journey aboard the bus is far from smooth. With the capital under attack from enemy action, the vehicle is forced to take a detour to reach its destination, which the passengers and the conductress insist they will reach - eventually.

As the bus passengers fall asleep around him, Tom reveals how much he has missed Will since he's been away. Even though he upset his routine, Will brought youthful joy into his life that had been absent since Rachel died 40 years ago. Tom vows that he will find him and that he will not rest until he is sure the boy is alright: "Hold on there - I'll soon be hugging you real tight!"

'I've Missed You'
Tom's search for William has led him to a bus heading for Deptford. With the London Blitz contrasting sharply with life at Weirwold, he sings about how the young evacuee had changed his life and how he misses him.
Piano: Philippa Lucas.
I've Missed You.mp3
MP3 audio file [3.5 MB]

As Tom heads towards Mrs Beech's address, we learn that Zach has ignored his instructions and made his way to London using a forged ticket. Mrs Beech herself is becoming even more erratic. The saintly mother has a darker side - entertaining servicemen, even though she is not aware what she is doing. Will has named the baby Trudy and is concerned that she is unwell. But Mrs Beech will not tolerate his insolence and ties him up in a cupboard under the stairs with the baby. Her dramatic self-analysis reveals a troubled soul that longs to be free of her schizophrenic disorder. From a happy carefree childhood, she has become deeply distressed and frightened of the person she has become.

An air-raid results in Tom joining Londoners in a shelter where conditions are crowded and relationships strained ('Move Over'). But it turns out that among the people in the air-raid shelter is Mrs Beech's neighbour, Glad, who describes strange nocturnal noises at number 12 and a woman of mysterious habits. The Air Raid Warden offers to take Tom to the address and help him find out what has happened to Will.

With the help of the ARP warden, a policeman and Glad, Tom gains access to Mrs Beech's house where they discover Will in a bruised and distressed state. He has been holding the baby since being tied up and reluctantly lets Tom take her. It becomes evident that Trudy has not survived and they resolve to track down Will's mother and to make her responsible for her actions. Will is gently taken away to hospital.

When Tom visits Will in the hospital, he discovers he has been sedated because he has been disturbing the other patients with his screams. Both of them are keen to return to Little Weirwold but the hospital staff are adamant that that will not be possible, since Tom is not a relative. As he leaves - vowing to remain close by - the nurse administers another sedative and Will falls asleep.

Tom confronts the psychiatrist, Miss Skelton, who is eager to take Will away to a home in the country. Tom insists that what the boy really needs is "proper caring ... his friends ... holding". Despite Tom's efforts to get them to release Will into his care, the argument is eventually won by the psychiatrist and Tom - frustrated and disappointed - calls out to his late wife, as though asking her what he should do now.

'What's Best'
Duet with Laural Cusano as Miss Skelton,
Piano: Philippa Lucas, Percussion: Kevin Hardcastle.
What's Best (duet).mp3
MP3 audio file [3.0 MB]

When a bomb shelter collapses and a stream of casualties are brought in to the hospital, Tom seizes his chance to rescue Will. He wakes the boy and wraps him in a blanket, telling him that they're going home. As they escape through the pandemonium, Will hugs Tom and they sing how they have both missed each other.

 

But tragedy looms. Zach, having tracked Will and Tom down to the hospital, appears and sees them disappear into the mayhem. But before they can be reunited, there is a massive explosion ...

Back in Little Weirwold, Will is informed of Zach's death in London. Doctor Little brings him Zach's theatrical accessories, saying his parents knew how close they were. Will is clearly traumatised - distressed by the death of his young friend but also haunted by his treatment in the hospital. He continues to suffer from nightmares ...

Will's nightmares and reality merge. He blames himself for baby Trudy's death and learns that his mother has died too, yet she continues to haunt his dreams. The police accuse Tom of kidnapping the boy but Will insists he was rescued not abducted. Eventually, the authorities agree that he need not be taken into a children's home but rather that Tom can adopt him.

The friendship between Will and Zach ran deep. Will is inconsolable. He rails against God for taking his friend from him. In his mind, he sees Zach and hears his voice, reminding him of all the good times they shared: how they faced alienation at school together and the joy they experienced in staging a show with the villagers. Eventually, Will realises that even though Zach has gone from him physically, he will remain in his heart forever.

Realising that the power of love and friendship are stronger than death and separation, Will resolves to paint a backdrop for Zach. He finds the strength to pick up his pencils and paints again, much to the delight of Mr Tom:

 

"Back to your old self I see," he says to the boy warmly. "Fancy a cuppa?" Will's response is unexpected ...

Without thinking, Will addresses Tom as 'dad' as he accepts a cup of tea and bounces out of the door. The widower can hardly believe what he has heard. After 40 years of loneliness and a life devoid of love, the bond between him and Will fills him with hope once again. The boy has accepted him as his father and Tom once again has affection in his life."He called me dad!" he whispers as the lights fade.

 

"You thrived, my boy.

I rediscovered joy.

You opened up my heart so wide:

No hiding memories on a shelf.

No more burying myself.

Oh, I'll make sure that you're alright!"

 

The role of Tom Oakley was harder than any part I'd ever played before. Musically, Gary Carpenter's score felt initially dischordant and lacking in logic or structure. But once we had come to terms with its occasionally irregular flow and rhythm, as well as the repetition of its musical themes, it gradually made sense.

 

But the hardest part of the role by far was the emotional depth that it demanded. And for me personally, still grieving for Blair after 15 years - just as Tom continued to grieve for Rachel who died 40 years previously - it struck nerves in every scene. The salvation that Tom found in his life by bonding with young Will, the relationship that developed between them, the genuine love they experienced: all of these emotions touched me deeply. In the midst of so much pain and despair, both Tom and Will found hope and redemption.

 

The feedback from the audiences every night confirmed that we had indeed touched them. We made them laugh and cry - as we ourselves did in performance. It is a remarkable story. And it is one I am so proud and grateful to have been a part of.

From Tosca - Giacomo Puccini:

 


Diedi gioielli

della Madonna al manto,
e diedi il canto agli astri,

al ciel,
che ne ridean più belli.

 

English Translation:

 

I lived for art, I lived for love ...
I gave jewels

for the Madonna's mantle,
And songs for the stars,

in heaven,
That shone forth with greater radiance.

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