Chichester reaps the benefit of that old Kings Theatre magic

Jack Butcher (William) and Ethan Beer (Zach) in rehearsal for Goodnight Mister Tom at Chichester Festival Theatre.   Picture: Catherine Ashmore.

Jack Butcher (William) and Ethan Beer (Zach) in rehearsal for Goodnight Mister Tom at Chichester Festival Theatre. Picture: Catherine Ashmore.

Building work on the new theatre

The Kings opens up its wartime secrets

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As the daughter of a navy officer, Michelle Magorian travelled the world with him. But when she was back home in Portsmouth, she liked nothing better than absorbing the magic of the stage at the Kings Theatre.

She later fulfilled her ambition to be an actress but always enjoyed writing too, and her novel, Goodnight Mister Tom, was inspired by her mother’s tales of her time as a nurse during the Second World War.

Oliver Ford Davies plays the lead role in Goodnight Mister Tom

Oliver Ford Davies plays the lead role in Goodnight Mister Tom

It is the story of a boy evacuee and his remarkable friendship with an elderly recluse, and now the Petersfield-based writer is to see it staged at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Michelle admits she still feels drawn to theatre – although not to staying in different digs every week on tour as she did in her acting day.

‘I miss the rehearsals and working on a script,’ she says. ‘I love walking into a theatre, or anywhere that becomes a performance space.

‘I love that buzz you get. It’s a mixture of excitement and feeling at home.’

So the magic of those days at the Kings has not faded.

When Goodnight Mister Tom was filmed for television in 1998, the lead role now being taken by Olivier award winner Oliver Ford Davies was played by John Thaw – whose widow, Sheila Hancock, is now chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.

And there is another regional connection in the production of David Wood’s new dramatisation.

Michelle explains: ‘I don’t know whether you call it karma or what, but many years ago a 14-year-old boy approached David and told him he wanted to be a director. David took him seriously and gave him some advice.

‘That boy was Angus Jackson, who is directing our play. Imagine if David had told him not to bother trying to be a director!’

Talking of David, Michelle could not be more pleased that the man dubbed ‘the children’s dramatist’ has reworked her story as a play.

They first met when Michelle was a young actress. ‘He auditioned me for something – I forget what now, but he didn’t give me the part,’ she laughs.

‘But he has an incredible track record and we are in very good hands with him.’

Was letting him loose on her book like handing over her baby?

Not at all, she insists.

‘I’m fascinated by how people put their own creative input into my novels.

‘It’s like throwing a pebble into a pool and watching the ripples.’

Goodnight Mister Tom encompasses big subjects including mental illness and loss, so Michelle always thought of it as a book for older readers – although some considered it suitable for younger children because one key character, William, is just turning nine years old at the beginning.

The writer says: ‘In the original draft I had William’s best friend, Zach, come back. I didn’t want him to die.

‘But I decided it didn’t feel truthful.

‘That was the horror of war. People died.

‘Children died.’

n Goodnight Mister Tom, produced by CFT with the Children’s Touring Partnership, runs from next Wednesday to

Saturday.

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