…by David Wood. Directed by Jessica-Ann Jenner
Review by Peter Yolland
This multi-award-winning 2011 play by David Wood was initially published as a children’s novel in 1981 by Michelle Magorian. It tells the story of Tom Oakley doing his bit for the war effort by taking in William Beech, a young boy evacuated from London to a hamlet in the West Country.
Villagers were surprised that the reclusive Oakley would want to take in an evacuee and particularly an emotionally vulnerable boy who had been abused both mentally and physically by his mother. Gradually Tom and Will build a positive relationship, with Tom tending to Will’s injuries and helping him to read and write. Tom discovers that Will likes to draw and paint and – we eventually find out – so did Tom’s wife, who died in childbirth along with their son 50 years earlier.
After being on the receiving end of bullying by the local children, Will becomes friends with them, and in particular another evacuee: Zach. He joins them in the village drama group.
Things take a serious turn when Will is recalled back to London to see his sick mother. Once there, the neglect resumes, and Will discovers he has a baby sister. Becoming increasingly worried about Will not responding to his letters, Tom travels to London to see him. There he discovers Will tied up in a cupboard cuddling his dead sister and his mother nowhere to be seen. After a spell in hospital, Will is destined to go to a special residential home, but Tom decides to kidnap him and take him back home. This leads to an inquiry into who should have custody and it is decided that Tom should adopt Will. Will still has to overcome the loss of Zach who, having returned to London, dies during an air raid. However, the play ends with Will so much better in himself calling Mr Tom ‘Dad’ and Tom himself coming to terms with his bereavement.
With the hottest ticket in town all sold before the opening night, this was a play everybody wanted to see and I am sure no one would have been disappointed in what they witnessed. There is a cliché of ‘Never act with children or animals’, but director Jessica-Ann Jenner, having been so struck by the book, knew they were necessary to put on this play. She was not let down in her choices.
Red Broughton (Will) and Leon Taylor (Zach) each played their roles magnificently and were true to their characters, with Will’s fragility and Zach’s unbounded energy. Alicia Foreman (Carrie), Aneira Knight (Ginnie) and Raph Phillips (George) – all members of the BLT Youth Group – were equally confident in their main roles. I didn’t think I was watching a youth group in the several scenes that all the young people were on stage by themselves and believed this was a continuation of the adult production. Sammy the dog was cleverly portrayed by the puppetry skills of Niamh Clark. She really brought him to life, engaging with Tom, Will and the others.
To follow John Thaw in an award-winning role takes some doing and I felt Steve Williams played him to a tee with the right mix of emotions as both the grumpy recluse and a nurturing and determined father figure. Bethan Boxall, on the other hand, as Will’s demented, religiously obsessed mother, was frankly terrifying. The remaining ensemble cast members were all equally convincing in their principal roles and differentiated their other roles. They spoke with recognisable West Country accents and were slick in helping with all the set changes.
The set, designed by Tony Jenner and the director, consisted mainly of wooden pallets, which were skilfully manipulated into homes, shops, air-raid shelters and hospitals. Clever lighting design by Emma Christmas helped identify the various scenes. The costumes were bang on the period and well done to the wardrobe team needed to fit such a large cast with multiple roles. So, hats off to the director, whose love of this story was so carefully imagined on the BLT stage to bring a play together that was enjoyed by all those who were lucky enough to get a ticket.