The Kneehigh Theatre of Cornwall (The Wild Bride, Tristan and Yseult, Meow, Meow), in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre, is back in Berkeley for the holidays, before traveling to Los Angeles and New York City.
This time they’re presenting the lively, inventive and entertaining 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, a mash-up of music, dance, cute animal puppets, and, oh yes, a story about World War II.
The production was adapted by famed children’s author Michael Morpurgo (War Horse), who wrote the book on which the play is based, and Emma Rice, formerly of Kneehigh Theatre and now artistic director of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, who also directed and choreographed the entertainment.
946 is titularly about a botched 1943 rehearsal for the D-day landings, which ended in the long-hidden and tragic deaths of 946 Allied troop members. Morpurgo and Rice personalize the story by centering on one family living near the site of the Allied practice event, the English village of Slapton, on the Devon coast. The lives of 12-year-old Lily (excellent Katy Owen), her mother (first-rate Kyla Goodey) and Grandad (versatile Chris Jared) are altered when they meet two kind and ebullient African-American G.I.s who take part in the catastrophic D-day preparation: Adi Tips (outstanding Ncuti Gatwa) and Harry (talented Nabdi Bhebhe).
Adi and Harry’s jitterbugging gets the show off to a rollicking start. And, like their dancing, the scattered explosions of creativity — the small puppet animals, the funny caricature of Lord Something-or-Other (talented Ewan Wardrop also plays a female Londoner), and the miniature objects used to change scenes — become the dog wagging the tail of the loosely constructed plot. The cheeriness and humor does act to soften the blow of the death of the 946 soldiers for the children in the audience (this is a family holiday event), so much so, that the poignancy of the debacle comes as a bit of a shock.
The first act drags a bit after we are introduced to the main characters, as well as Lily’s French-Jewish teacher (multi-faceted Emma Darlow) and her classmates, including a young evacuee from London (skilled Adam Sopp). We watch Lily endlessly search for her adorable lost (puppet) cat, Tipsy. Perhaps Lily is lonely for her soldier father off in Africa and her cat is a substitute, or maybe she simply loves her pet. But the theme of the lost animal was extended way too long into the evening for my taste. Meanwhile, I was enthralled watching the adult actor Katy Owen capture the athletic movements and shy mannerisms of 12-year-old Lily. A fabulous portrayal.
Composer Stu Barker blends a great soul/blues band, snatches of gospel music, including an audience sing-along, recorders, and bottles as instruments, all of which keep the mood light and pleasing throughout. And that is what works in 946. The focus is on mood, rather than character and plot. There are only very small glimpses into deeper issues, such as the segregated U.S. Army and the horrors of war. For that reason, the meaningful quotes from Brecht, Angelou and M.L. King, Jr. seem out of place. 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is definitely an audience pleaser, but you may not remember much about it afterwards.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips plays through Jan. 15. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.
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