Q & A with adaptor David Wood
Q – Why have you chosen to adapt Goodnight Mister Tom from the book to stage?
A – I’ve wanted to do it for more than 20 years. The reason, apart from the fact that I loved the book,was that I had adapted Michelle Magorian’s second book, Back Home. I had already met Michelle and I said to her at the time I’d love to do Goodnight Mister Tom for the stage. At that time she was working on a musical theatre version and I became a mentor on it. At the front of my mind I always had this feeling that it would work best as a play with incidental music. 15 years later here we are with Chichester Festival Theatre commissioning it, with the Children’s Touring Partnership, everything has finally come together. I’m absolutely delighted.
Q – The book features a lot of adult issues – deceit, war, pain. Is it harder to adapt a book like this and not dumb down these issues?
A – I don’t think so. No book is easy to adapt and each book I’ve adapted has its own problems. The aim is to keep it as faithful to the original as possible. The problem of course is, the book is not a play and the structure of a play is different from the structure of a book. The aim is to find a theatrical way of telling the story which approximates, highlights and illuminates the qualities of a book.
This book deals with issues (the mere fact that it’s set in war time is one of them) but there are also the problems that William Beech goes through with the sad illness of his mother, the whole idea of evacuees being away from home and Mister Tom himself – a sad figure at the beginning who has never recovered from the death of his wife. These are grown up issues but I don’t think young people are totally divorced from them in their lives and I don’t want to skim over them or hide them in any way.
Q – War is a difficult subject matter for adults to watch on stage. Were you worried about covering this issue for children?
A – No. I think that every generation has to be made aware of the awfulness and futility of war. My generation born at the end of the war must be the first generation not to experience war first hand, happening on our own land or territory and I think that is pretty remarkable. I think that has happened because there has been a healthy remembrance, year by year, and also as we lose people in Afghanistan, images are there for us to stay connected. Children are exposed to these images now, just as much as adults and I think it’s right that on the curriculum that they learn about World War II. The great thing about Goodnight Mister Tom is it’s actually a very human story and the circumstances that it depicts could not happen at any other time, other than a time of war. William Beech and Mister Tom would never have met if everything was ticekty boo. It’s a human story, it’s not one of nations fighting and I feel that the humanity of the story is what makes it work for children as well as adults. What Michelle does is to take an adult character as well as a child. The book is as much about Tom as it is about William and therefore both of them are enriched and changed by the relationship they enter in to – which is not something they wanted or looked for but they are both lost souls and they find themselves through each other. I think one reason why people enjoy the book so much is because they can relate to Mister Tom and William. It’s a story that affects people and I’m hoping very much we can achieve that on the stage.
Q – While the story is not directly based on a real person, evacuation was real and the narrative is an accurate account of the time between 1939 – 1941. What will children of today get out of this story?
A – They will be curious to understand why William has gone to Little Weirwold and has to put up with an elderly man. One reason was there was a great danger of bombs falling and children were therefore safer away from homes in the towns and cities. What surprises people now is the ease in which parents sent three and four year olds away – I think that in itself is interesting to children. The other interesting thing is seeing William’s situation, particularly in the second half of the play, where we realise the home life he left behind was not a happy environment and the one he’s gone to one isn’t totally alien to him but where he’s fitted and been accepted. So when William has to go back to the world of his sick mother we feel desperately sorry for him. Children have an innate sense of justice and fairness and many of the most successful children’s books and stories revolve around the idea of unfairness. For example in Cinderella it’s not simply rags to riches, we want Cinderella to win and it’s exactly the same with William. We are rooting for him and want him to find happiness. Children also feel an affinity with Mister Tom and they want him to have happiness, a happy ending and a happy resolution. The war backdrop is very important, the story couldn’t happen without it. What we don’t want to do is ram the audience with a history lesson but there are simple pieces of detail they can learn such as rationing and blacking out the curtains. There is good educational value which runs alongside the story.
Q – The book is loved by children and adults of varying ages even though it includes dark moments. How will children handle these passages in the play?
A – Mrs Beech’s baby dying could disturb younger children. It’s a harrowing moment, but I think it’s rather clever the way Michelle has written it because it isn’t someone we know, and therefore doesn’t have an emotional connection. The reason the moment is there is because we see the love, care and responsibility that William feels for this child. The situation with his mother is also well handled in the book. We do realise that she is ill and not just a tyrannical, unpleasant woman. Children do know how to understand and cope with that. I do hope that school parties will go and see this but I do think adults will enjoy it too, partly because they may have read it as a child but also because they may have been one of the 14 million people that saw it when it was on ITV starring John Thaw. I think older people who were evacuees during the war will be interested. Community is a very important aspect of the book and the play and that’s one reason why it’s beloved by people of all ages.
Q – Have there been any challenges in adapting Michelle’s book to the stage?
A – The biggest challenge was finding the way to drive the narrative forward. I was struggling to work out how and then it came to me – Tom would have to be our narrator. In the book he talks to his dog Sammy and in the cemetery to his dead wife Rachel. This personal way of speaking seemed a great way of helping narrate the story and moving the scenes on.