Sold out weeks before it opened, and with an extra performance added, Headgate Theatre Productions once again give audiences what they are looking for with this excellent production of the well-known tale, made famous by the TV adaptation starring John Thaw. As children are evacuated to the countryside at the outbreak of the second World War, young William Beech is billeted with local curmudgeon Tom Oakley, much to the amusement of the villagers. But they both begin to reveal the best of each other, Tom’s enduring grief for his dead wife and child begins to lessen as he cares for abused, frightened William. In the second half, when William is returned to London at the request of his damaged, violent mother, the story goes to dark places, and is unflinching in its portrayal of child abuse.
The play hinges on the success of the relationship between Tom and William, and David King and Benjamin Spalding capture perfectly their growing love and care for each other, and William begins to shine as he finds his place within the community. They bring tears to the eyes many times throughout the show and are utterly convincing in the lead roles. Although several adults make fine work of the multitude of characters, in this production it’s the children that shine. Rufus Want almost steals the show as gregarious and loveable Zach, a star within the play and a star in this production, giving much needed comic relief in his love of theatre! The children, Reggie Moore, Chloe Long, Darcy McPhie, Alex Derrick and Nieve Dyson are all wonderful, and to see them take centre stage in the curtain call makes you feel nothing but hope and excitement for the future of theatre. Special mention must go to Tara Whelham, the puppeteer that brings Sammy the dog to glorious life throughout the play.
David Wood’s adaptation of the book makes no concessions to the demands of theatre, with 19 locations and many short scenes, it’s more of a screenplay than a theatrical work, and provides many challenges for any space, not least our gem of a small theatre. But director Dawn King, whose perception of the play is pitch perfect, and an excellent crew, make much of the space, sometimes creating locations out of nothing. On the first night they were still getting to grips with it, but it did not detract from the audience’s enjoyment of the play one iota. There is also an informative exhibition of pictures and artefacts from the period, and this a show worth getting the bunting out for!
Photo credit – Sally Parkinson.