Writer: Michael Morpurgo
Director: Emma Rice
Reviewer: Mel Duncan
Hidden stories and those long forgotten can be the beginnings of magical theatre which teach one to probe deeper into the world around them. Given that Slapton Sands, the village depicted in Michael Morpurgo’s much-loved book sits in such proximity to Kneehigh’s creative stomping ground, this would be a natural choice of subject matter. The dark undertone to the story would be a tricky one for them to encapsulate in a family show.
In practice runs for the D-Day landing, 946 American GIs lost their lives due to a communication error. This haunting story is beautifully interwoven with a chaotic frame story bringing in aspects of lost love, missed opportunities, loyalty and friendship; bonds that cannot be broken.
A gargantuan set of wood greets the audience and provides plenty to explore while awaiting the start of the show. Adebayo Bolaji covers this time superbly with a set of beautiful soulful melodies, ably accompanied by MD Stu Barker and the rest of the band – all skilled multi-instrumentalists switching instruments (sometimes across the band pit) mid-song.
The usual Kneehigh pre-show banter with the crowd keeps everyone jollied along and creates a wonderful atmosphere – proving that the heart of the Asylum (one of my favourite venues), much as any home, lies in the heart of its’ inhabitants.
Katy Owen is stunning. There is no other possible way to describe her performance – full of energy and awkwardness and false bravery and innocence and love and raw oscillating emotion that can only be found in a 12-year-old girl.
Drawn into a world of wonder and assured storytelling, for two hours an audience is part of the Slapton world, part of the chaotic community dealing with rehoming and evacuees and American GIs, yet still finding the fun among the tender moments. Lindy-hop and soulful ballads seamlessly segue from one to the other, as does life. Stu Barker is a talented MD, and the company on stage clearly have every confidence in him.
The company as a unit weave between roles superbly and confidently, bringing larger than life characters into the mix with their usual aplomb. Special mention must go to Ncuti Gatwa and Nandi Bhebe have a bittersweet part to play in this story – they do so beautifully, with spirit and sensitivity to their roles – but still capturing that Kneehigh spirit of warmth and energy.
Emma Rice shows what a true director with an original vision and the ability to communicate that to her creative team can do. Current media coverage, suggests that some quarters believe that a traditional approach is a vehicle for preserving cultural heritage and preserving artforms. Il heritage and preserving artforms. In this beautiful collaboration Morpurgo and Rice have categorically put that argument into the ground. Poignant, respectful, yet forward thinking in approach, this piece encapsulates how to tell a story well. A must see – truly beautiful.
Runs until 29 October 2016 | Image: Steve Tanner