An interview with David Troughton
"The refugee crisis has raised the question again of whether we should take in people who are less fortunate than ourselves, through no fault of their own"
Tell us about your personal connection with the story of Goodnight Mister Tom?
When the book came out in 1981 my wife and I both read it to our children, and we all loved it immediately. It’s become a classic and rightly so – it’s beautifully written, very succinct, and just a great story. I then saw John Thaw in the film version and thought I’d love to play the part. It really appealed to me, the idea of a man who is denying in himself the ability to live life once death has happened. It’s so sad that he just cuts himself off. And the rejuvenation that occurs when the boy arrives in his life is so heartening – they save each other. What’s so interesting, especially in David Wood’s adaptation, is the way that Mister Tom is in denial for so long; he doesn’t want to commit himself in any way because it might set him up for disappointment.
The adaptation is very much a play of two halves, and it doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the story…
David Wood sets it up beautifully. The first half shows the effect of war on village life, before the action becomes much more raw as the story moves to London. But I think it’s great for children to hear stories with darker elements; after all, so many classic children’s stories don’t shy away from harsh realities.
Would you say the story has particular resonance today?
It certainly does. Wars are still happening – we never learn. And the refugee crisis has raised the question again of whether we should take in people who are less fortunate than ourselves, through no fault of their own. In 1939 evacuation was a government initiative – they thought a million people were going to die from aerial bombardments. I think the message of the play is that you have to deal with death, but you mustn’t live in the death, you must move forward. There’s real hope in the story.
They say never work with children and animals, but you’re doing both.
Indeed! It makes for a different kind of rehearsal process as, quite rightly, there are strict working rules for children. We have three sets of children playing Zach and William, and they’re all brilliant. They’re big demanding parts, but David Wood didn’t want to cast young adults to play the children and I think he’s absolutely right. It means I need to adjust to different co-stars each night, which is interesting because all of them have their own characteristics. As for the animals, they’re of course actually puppets, but it’s tremendous fun to have them on stage. They also play an important role in William’s development, helping him to learn to love his new rural surroundings.
What kind of reactions have you had to the show so far?
Very favourable ones, I’m glad to say. As the lights go down at the end you see a sea of children’s faces stunned with amazement, and their parents holding their handkerchiefs. The children get really wrapped up in the story, largely because of the way we tell it. It’s very simple, with minimal set, and a brilliant ensemble company. It’s quite filmic in the way the story rolls along, and it really seems to capture the imagination of the audience.
Do you think there’s something inherently theatrical about Michelle Magorian’s writing?
She was an actress herself, so she understands very well the structure and emotion of drama. The book reminded me of Dickens in its portrayal of poverty and of the abuse of children. The London that she evokes is a harsh place, not only because it’s being bombed but also because internal lives – particularly that of William’s mother – are being shattered. There’s a definite theatricality to the way the narrative unfolds, and the way the internal and the external conflict are aligned.
Your father Patrick was a famous actor – what did he make of your career choice?
He was very well known as a screen actor but he never did much theatre, largely because he got too nervous. He also didn’t like the costume changes and “all that shouting in the evening”, as he called it. He used to get physically sick before performances. When I told him I’d got a job for two years with the RSC he said, “don’t worry son, something else will come up”. But I love doing theatre, particularly when you get the kind of reactions we’re getting for Goodnight Mister Tom.
Who were your other influences as an actor?
Anthony Hopkins was always someone I really admired. And then I got to work with him and he was such good fun to be around – he would corpse all the time. I love that sense of fun because it eases the tension. Acting is only pretending after all!
How do you unwind away from theatre?
I love cricket – if it’s on television at any time I will watch it, regardless of who’s playing. I’m actually a qualified umpire so in the summer I umpire in the Birmingham league for the Stratford-upon-Avon second eleven. I love being out in the middle; second to being on a stage it’s the best place in the world to be.
Goodnight Mister Tom comes to the New Theatre Oxford from 22nd-26th March.
Tickets can be purchased from the New Theatre box office on George Street, by ringing 0844 871 3020 or visit www.atgtickets.com/oxford (phone and internet bookings subject to booking/transaction fee. Calls are charged at 7p per minute, plus your phone company's access charge.). For bookings of 10 or more, or for Equal Access bookings, please 0844 871 3040.
Images - © Dan Tsantilis
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