Adapters: Michael Morpurgo, Emma Rice
Director: Emma Rice
Composer: Stu Barker
Reviewer: Tim Wright
‘In the dark times, will there be singing?’ we are asked at the top of the show. This is a story about refugees, about people displaced from their homes by war and about collective experience of loss. But this isn’t a play about Syria, the Calais Jungle or Iraq. This is about a small seaside town in Devon in 1943.
Kneehigh brings us the remarkable story of Slapton Sands in their new production. A town where all the residents were evacuated to make way for the US Army in order to take part in ill-fated D-Day landing drills (due to the similarity between the French and British coastlines). It’s a story of worlds colliding – young evacuees from the UK’s cities arrive and are mercilessly teased as ‘Towny Twerps’ while black Americans arrive and give the locals Hershey chocolate and big band tunes. Many of the locals have never seen a black face before and stare open mouthed.
But this is not a dour tale – director Emma Rice finds bucketfuls of humanity and laughter against the backdrop of war. At the centre is a little girl, Lily, who has lost her cat and despite the chaos around her, is desperate to find him. The cat is Tips and is brought to life by the wonderfully expressive puppetry of Sarah Wright. Katy Owen’s Lily is a beautifully nuanced portrayal of a 12-year-old girl and her growing flirtation with a young evacuee boy, Barry, is touching in its innocence.
Kneehigh and Rice beautifully judge how to manage the tragedy of war against the everyday lives of their characters. One poignant moment brings a German soldier into contact with the locals and the Grandad simply says ‘he’s somebody’s son’. We are reminded of the human cost of war, whatever side you are on.
Kneehigh and Emma Rice give us the kind of theatre we have come to expect from them. This is theatre without boundaries or convention. The roots of Kneehigh are in children’s theatre and it’s these roots that give this production its playful nature. Anything goes in their world – puppetry, music, flashbacks – everything is on the table. This sometimes makes it hard to keep up as the style shifts but keeping with it is richly rewarding.
The story set in wartime is familiar territory for author and adaptor Michael Morpurgo- he is the man behind the monster hit War Horse. while 946 won’t have the same broad appeal as War Horse it actually has a much more intriguing story, partly due to the fact it had to be kept secret for so long. Morpurgo wrote it nearly a decade ago and even he must be surprised at how relevant his story feels now. One can’t help but make comparisons about child refugees fleeing bombs – just that in 2016 it’s Aleppo not London they flee from. Those kids, just like Lily says about Tips: ‘don’t know where home is anymore’. It’s no accident that the adaptation sneaks in a Brecht quote early on about singing in dark times. Brecht thought theatre gave us a distance with which to observe human behaviour and this production does exactly that. We get a chance to see humans react to people that are different, people that have experienced tragedy and people forced to flee their homes. Will there be singing? The answer is a resounding yes.
Runs until 20 November 2016 then continues to tour | Image: Contributed