WHEN David Wood sees people leaving Goodnight Mister Tom “smiling through their tears”, he feels he has won.
“It doesn’t worry me if the sales of Kleenex have gone up considerably,” says a writer with a magic touch for children’s theatre. “It is not as though we are sending people out at the end of a story that’s been remorselessly dark.
“The play lightens up and the two main characters heal themselves by coming together.”
David has adapted a selection of our best-loved books for the stage including Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, Dick King-Smith’s Babe, Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea and Eric Hill’s Spot’s Birthday Party.
Most recently, though, he turned to Michelle Magorian’s heartbreaking modern classic about a young boy’s friendship with a widower at the start of the Second World War.
Published in 1981, the novel charts the story of an abused boy, William, who is evacuated from London in 1939 and placed with reclusive Tom Oakley.
“It has been a labour of love,” David says. “I read the book many years ago and initially adapted Michelle’s second book, Back Home, as a television film. I eventually got the rights for Goodnight Mister Tom and then it took years more to get the right production.”
He adds: “All I wanted to do was to be faithful to the book which is lengthy and has lots of characters. I had to choose the characters carefully and sometimes conflate (put two characters into one).”
Partly inspired by Michelle’s mother, a wartime nurse, the novel avoids sentimentality and, despite being ultimately uplifting, has some bleak moments. In addition to child abuse and imprisonment, the story deals with the death of a baby and also one of William’s friends during the London Blitz.
David says: “People ask me if I softened the story, and say, ‘how can you present young people with a dead baby?’ But the fact that the story is very moving is why young people are affected by it.
“The basic appeal is the relationship between a young boy and an old man, both of whom are damaged people and would not have met if there hadn’t been a war.
“I find it interesting and emotionally involving and the aim is to put it on stage in such a way that it will emotionally involve the audience, which is what the theatre is all about.”
Goodnight Mister Tom, a Chichester Festival Theatre production, won acclaim in London’s West End before embarking on a tour which includes a week of performances at Sunderland Empire.
David says: “It has a very broad appeal because it is set in wartime and it goes right the way down through the generations. There are children who were evacuated who are still alive and their children have heard the stories.
“I have seen a school party and a party of senior citizens in the same audience and they all seem to relate to it and get wound up in it.”
David Wood wrote his first play for children in 1967 and has since written books, screenplays and more than 70 plays, many of which he has directed. He received an OBE for services to literature and drama in 2004.
He has adapted eight of Roald Dahl’s books including The BFG, The Witches, The Twits, Danny The Champion of the World and George’s Marvellous Medicine, all of which have been seen at North East theatres.
A new production of James and the Giant Peach by Birmingham Stage Company is coming to Darlington Civic Theatre in March.
The father of two grown-up daughters says: “James has toured before but it is so popular that you can bring it out every few years and have a new audience.
“It is a lovely story and a very inventive production and I am looking forward to seeing it go on the road.”
So after a lifetime in children’s theatre, what does David think of the current situation when companies are faced with savage funding cuts?
“When I wrote my first play there was very little children’s theatre,” he replies. “It was difficult to get theatres to take work and touring was hard.
“The situation has transformed. There are many people who want to do it rather than seeing it as a step on the ladder before working in ‘real’ theatre.
“Similarly there is an audience out there and a big under-fives market now which wasn’t there 25 years ago.
“But funding remains a great problem and schools find it hard, too, financially. Somehow companies must struggle on and keep going. A lot of very inventive and interesting work is going on and must be encouraged.”
David fears his original plays, such as The Selfish Shellfish and The See-Saw Tree, would no longer make it to the stage.
“One of my gripes is that it has got harder to get theatres to take anything which doesn’t have a very familiar title. It would be very difficult to get original plays on the stage now as theatres won’t take risks and are playing safe.
“That is the great problem we have. In 1976 I wrote a play, which is still performed all over the world, called The Gingerbread Man. Everyone knew the title but it wasn’t the nursery tale, it was my own version. That was not cheating and is one way in which you can beat the system. But it is not easy and children’s playwrights do feel a bit constrained.”
He adds: “The irony is that there is a much greater audience now for the work and more people who want to do the work. You would think that it would manifest itself in an ability to do new and original stories for the stage.”
A heartening footnote to this is that in the North East, despite budget cuts, venues have formed a consortium to promote children’s theatre, led by Darlington-based Theatre Hullabaloo.
:: Goodnight Mister Tom is at Sunderland Empire from February 5-9 (www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland) and James and the Giant Peach is at Darlington Civic Theatre from March 5-9 (www.darlingtonarts.co.uk)