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Goodnight Mr Tom provides Roy Hudd with opportunity to work with talent of tomorrow

PUBLISHED: 12:49 31 August 2018

Roy Hudd as Tom Oakley, in Goodnight Mister Tom, at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Tony Kelly

Roy Hudd as Tom Oakley, in Goodnight Mister Tom, at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Tony Kelly

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Goodnight Mr Tom is a touching and heartwarming story of how love and kindness can heal deep wounds and bridge the generation gap. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to director Karen Simpson and star actor Roy Hudd about a new production which celebrates local talent

Jasmine Briggs as William Beech and Roy Hudd as Tom Oakley, in Goodnight Mister Tom, at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Tony KellyJasmine Briggs as William Beech and Roy Hudd as Tom Oakley, in Goodnight Mister Tom, at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Tony Kelly

Goodnight Mr Tom is a classic children’s book, a tale of love and redemption during the Second World War, and its now been adapted into a play by playwright David Wood. It’s currently on stage at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds as their summer production which combines a professional cast, led by Roy Hudd, with a talented ensemble of young actors from the community.

The Theatre Royal’s summer production which marries young local talent with a professional cast is the brainchild of artistic director Karen Simpson.

Suffolk-based Roy Hudd came on board through a remarkable process of serendipity in which both he and Karen were talking to writer David Wood about wanting to do Goodnight Mr Tom. Unaware of the two conversations, Karen, then phoned Roy, to ask whether he would be interested in playing the role of Tom in the theatre’s big summer show.

Jasmine Briggs as William Beech and Sarah Louise Young as Mrs Beech, in Goodnight Mister Tom, at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Tony KellyJasmine Briggs as William Beech and Sarah Louise Young as Mrs Beech, in Goodnight Mister Tom, at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photo: Tony Kelly

Roy jumped at the chance to play a part he had always wanted to do and the show was set.

Why did you choose Goodnight Mr Tom as your summer production?

Karen Simpson: I was looking for something that would follow Our Day Out from last year, something that would give our youngsters something authentic, something that would give them strong characters to play, something within their age range but also something that had the potential to attract a really strong professional cast as well.

Because Our Day Out last year was such a successful piece and the combination of team youngsters with professional actors raised the bar in terms of performance, which you don’t see that often outside the West End, real children playing real characters and finding those plays is really tricky because there aren’t that many.

I remember my daughter coming home having read Goodnight Mr Tom at school and investigating it I discovered that David Wood, a very good writer, had adapted the stage version, and for me everything started to come together. David is one of the best adaptors of work for the stage and Goodnight Mr Tom is one of those stories that just speaks to all generations, so it was perfect.

When I do a play I always ask myself ‘Why direct this piece now?’ and, of course you can always create reasons to do anything, but, I felt that Goodnight Mr Tom, although it’s a period piece set in the Second World War, it still has something to say to a contemporary audience.

If you know the story or when you come to see the play you will see lots of echoes to our world today. The stories contained in the play are very current and I think will always remain current.

The Theatre Royal provides a wonderful opportunity for talented young actors to share the stage with and learn from a professional company.

Roy Hudd: Absolutely. There is some amazing talent on that stage. For me, it’s a similar feeling to playing Fagin. The only difference is that Fagin pretended to be nice but was a nasty piece of work and Tom is a grumpy old bugger but underneath it all is revealed to be a nice fella.

“But you understand him. He’s lost his wife and had a horrible life and he has cut himself off from the community and then this lad, this evacuee, comes along and suddenly he’s got to take care of him. It is the kid who brings him back to life again. Karen and I were talking in rehearsal about the fact that when we first meet him Tom has to be incredibly brusque. He doesn’t want to know. He’s lost his wife, his son has died and he feels if he gets close to anyone again he will be hurt again. He’s in pain. So he has shut himself off, in order to protect himself, in order to survive.

“I love that fact that this lad, asks awkward questions, as kids do, and gets it out of him, what happened to turn him into such a grumpy old sod.”

Roy, you were an evacuee, does this show chime with your own experiences during the war?

RH: “It does but only so far because my experience of being an evacuee was a very enjoyable one. I was lucky because my cousins were all evacuated with me and we just got on and we are still very close.

Are you basing your performance on anyone you encountered during the war?

RH: “Funny you should say that because I based my character on an uncle I had, who had been severely affected by what he had witnessed during the First World War. When we started rehearsals I said to Karen that there is more to this man than other people have showed. Too many people have played him like Father Christmas, he’s not, he’s in a bad way. He’s in just as much trouble as the kid. His love of painting connects him to his wife who always painted.

“But, if anyone asks him about her, she shies away, he doesn’t want to know and that reminded me of my uncle. I thought he was a miserable old sod and he wouldn’t talk about what happened, what he had seen. He was just like old Tom, he didn’t want to know. He wasn’t one for telling stories but one day I was asking about the people he was friends with, his comrades, and he suddenly perked up. He came alive and he brought out this picture of him with his mates. No-one had ever seen this picture before and it was about the camaraderie. The picture was of him and this other soldier sitting on this iron bed and the two boys are sitting their knitting and he said: ‘That’s why we became such pals, he taught me how to knit’. I wasn’t a genius but I was interested in him rather than what had happened and it started the process of building a bridge with him – and that’s what William does with Tom.”

Goodnight Mr Tom, by David Wood, adapted from the book by Michelle Magorian, runs at Bury Theatre Royal until September 8

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