Goodnight Mister Tom, Chichester Festival Theatre

A kindly curmudgeon wins the heart
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The Independent Culture

This stage adaptation of Michelle Magorian's moving 1981 novel for children, Goodnight Mister Tom has everything that tugs the heart strings and stimulates the tear ducts. But it is also splendidly faithful to the book's remarkable depiction of the darkness of death and mental illness, bullying, bigotry and parental cruelty. And in Angus Jackson's production it has moments of enchanting comedy courtesy of the alternating teams of very appealing child performers.

When William Beach arrives as an evacuee in Dorset, even well-meaning locals reckon that he has drawn the short straw in being billeted on the curmudgeonly widower, Mister Tom. The boy is bruised, illiterate, baffled by kindness. The old man is gruff, wary of displays of emotion and semi-reclusive since the death in childbed of his wife and daughter 41 years before. They gradually form a bond. But William is summoned back to London by his abusive mother, only to be discovered by Mister Tom, after an air raid, locked in a closet and cradling the corpse of a baby girl.

Oliver Ford Davies traces Mister Tom's reawakened capacity for tenderness most touchingly. Bringing a simultaneous lump to the throat and a smile to the lips, there is a delightful puppet dog, manipulated by a puppeteer in one of those Hovis ad flat caps. I found especially upsetting the scene where this adorable canine was barred from entering the hospital room where Mister Tom was due to discuss William's future with the psychiatrists.

Comically contrasted with William's brooding quietness is his wonderful show-off friend Zach, the Peter Pan of middle-class infant precocity and with am-dram ambitions that would make Bottom appear quite a retiring backstage type. Village society is nicely etched in, too, with an Ealing-esque broad drollery. In our current world where you have to apologise in advance if "real smoking" is to happen on stage, a fag-puffing GP now looks as picturesquely dated a phenomenon as wearing woad.

There's a spectacular set by Robert Innes Hopkins. The platform of a country station, replete with evocative travel posters for Dorset will suddenly rear up like a huge drawbridge disclosing a grimy peeling slum home where the roost is ruled by a violently religious and emotionally vindictive mother. Goodnight Mister Tom may be aimed primarily at children but it has some of Dickens's power of fixing on our primal fears – as when it seems that insensitive medics may haul William away from the ideal, loving foster parent of happier fantasies. And it's not a story of untroubled redemption, either. Even when William is recovering back in Dorset, his progress is cruelly hindered by the death of his best friend (the utterly winning little show-off) in the London bombing – an event staged here in one great severing flash.

At the end, there isn't a dry eye in the house. This show is going to be a big success – and I wouldn't mind the Kleenex franchise.

Touring to 14 May (