In this day and age when the majority of parents watch constantly over their children and keep them close, it is difficult to imagine how different things were for wartime evacuees.
During World War Two youngsters were sent miles away from home to escape urban bombing raids, and delivered like tiny parcels to the doors of complete strangers.
The story of Goodnight Mister Tom, which arrived at Milton Keynes Theatre this week, brings a whole new meaning to that sense of safety sought in the countryside homes of strangers.
Its central character William Beech flees life in London with his mother for the very different existence in Dorset with ‘Mister Tom’ Oakley and his faithful dog Sammy.
When frail little William arrives at Mister Tom’s door, traumatised and covered in bruises, it seems clear that this child has escaped more than London’s wartime bombs.
All is peaceful until William’s mother calls him back to London suddenly, forcing him to leave his new life of happiness and safety.
This is a quietly harrowing story which really brings home the struggles of wartime evacuees, as well as telling a separate tale of child abuse.
The play is beautifully put together with a set which really helps to tell the story, complete with vintage railway posters and a fold-down floor which physically and symbolically encloses William in London, upon his return to his mum.
In the performance I saw last night, William was played by Jamie Goldberg, one of a small team of actors taking on the part. This is a hefty role for any child actor to take on but Jamie - who attends the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London - rises to the challenge with all the professionalism and expertise of an adult performer.
Meanwhile, the role of kindly Mister Tom is taken on by acting veteran Oliver Ford Davies, who is slightly less curmudgeonly than John Thaw’s version in the film, but who brings great sensitivity to this character’s capacity for human kindness and sympathy.
One of the wonderful aspects of this production was the use of puppets to play each of the animal characters. One of the central characters is Sammy the dog, operated on stage by Elisa De Grey.
The puppeteer is not hidden, but physically walks the creature around the stage, making dog sounds and recreating the typical behaviours one would expect from a canine friend. Weirdly, after the first couple of scenes, I found that I didn’t even notice the puppeteer on stage anymore but instead watched the dog and responded to it as if it was a real animal. This imaginative use of puppetry really helped bring some freshness and vitality to what is now a very well known story.
A brilliant production, Goodnight Mister Tom is definitely worth seeing. But I would advise bringing a hanky, as this is a tear-jerker.
This play’s Milton Keynes run will end on Saturday. For info, log on to www.atgtickets.com