Evacuated to rural Dorset at the outbreak of the Second World War, city boy William Beech finds himself billeted with reclusive widower Tom Oakley and his far more forthcoming collie Sammy (a life-size puppet endearingly manipulated by Elisa de Grey). 

It isn’t long before the curmudgeonly old man’s heart begins to melt as he discovers the illiterate young boy’s unhappy background (along with a bible and the mandatory gasmask, all his mother has packed for him is a belt to whack him with).

And reticent William blossoms, too, as he overcomes the local kids’ prejudice against the city interloper and makes friends with William Price’s scene stealing Zack, a precociously confident fellow evacuee with a very different upbringing.

It’s all rather charmingly done, with a succession of swift scenes which never longer rest too long on the darker aspects of the story.

Oliver Ford Davies (with his long white hair and thoughtful manner) is perfectly cast as Tom, the four decades of loneliness since the death of his wife in childbirth melting away as his caring instincts are reawakened by the initially unwanted presence of Ewan Harris’s William (one of three young actors sharing the role) in this more serious seasonal alternative to the traditional panto.

Phoenix, Charing Cross Road, WC2H 0JP
Tube: Leicester Square /Tottenham Court Road
Until 26 January, £15 – £46.50

Photo: Catherine Ashmore