Adapters: Michael Morpurgo, Emma Rice
Director: Emma Rice
Composer: Stu Barker
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
About a week ago it was announced, much to the consternation of many theatre professionals, that Emma Rice is to leave her post as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe over issues of authenticity. Her Kneehigh production of 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, staged at the Globe in 2015, certainly discards any rulebook somewhere around page one – and the result is a glorious entertainment on a desperately serious subject which, for all the fun, has wise and true things to say about the human condition.
The play has a historical framework. In 1943 the villagers of Slapton in Devon were evacuated from their homes so that American troops could train there in preparation for D-Day the next year. Owing to a communications blunder, extensive manoeuvres in the Channel took place without cover from the British Navy and 946 American personnel perished in an E-boat attack.
On a visit to Slapton, Michael Morpurgo came across the story of a little girl on a farm who lost her cat when the exclusion zone was drawn up around the training area. The final element that formed the background to his 2005 book, The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, came when he discovered that the Americans had made a huge impression on the people of Devon, especially the African-American soldiers who formed strong relationships with farming families who had hardly seen a black face before.
946, adapted by Morpurgo and Rice from his original novel, tells of 12-year-old Lily Tregenza and her cat Tips, the evacuees from London and her friendship with Barry, the coming of the Americans and the Tregenzas’ friendship with Adi and Harry, the hunt for the cat, the slaughter of Exercise Tiger and, ultimately, a happy ending (of sorts), its sentimentality justified by the humanity of the whole evening.
The entire production is bursting with energy and imagination. Lez Brotherston’s set gives us bare boards, sand bags, and tin baths (for the Channel) in front of the opened up interior of a transport plane, which serves as raised bandstand. The initial five-piece band is enhanced by cast members dashing up the steps with trombone, tenor sax or violin – and the original band members take the reverse journey to join in the action in the schoolroom and on the farm. Under MD Pat Moran, and with original songs by Stu Barker to go along with soul, swing and jump and jive classics, musical standards are excellent, with fine vocals not only from the main man Akpore Uzoh, but the likes of Nandi Bhebhe, welcoming the second half with a powerful version of I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free.
With the puppetry of Sarah Wright, farm animals scurry convincingly and German airmen drop by parachute; movement is wittily stylised and exhaustingly energetic, Ewan Wardrop’s Lord Something-or-other and his horse a particular highlight; choreographers Emma Rice and Etta Murfitt have fun with everything from Morris dancing to jive.
Even in a superb cast of 12 Katy Owen stands out as Lily, a remarkable performance of knowing looks, innocent affection, sudden emotional explosions, unlimited energy and downright naughtiness.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Contributed