“Some stories must be told!” And they can be in no better hands than the Cornish-based Kneehigh Theatre Company which has brought its lively and engaging production of 946 The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips to London’s Globe Theatre.
No, it wasn’t written by Shakespeare – and there’s not a doublet or hose in sight. Kneehigh’s former artistic director Emma Rice is now in charge at The Globe and her decision to bring this magical, enchanting, poignant play to the venue is like a breath of fresh for the Bankside theatre.
The 946 of the title refers to a scandalous, shocking, true story, which was hidden from the public for more than 40 years.
During WWII American troops evacuated the entire Devon village of Slapton so that they could practice for the Normandy landings on its renowned beach.
But, thanks to a colossal blunder by the British, the Yanks weren’t told that German torpedos had them in their sights – and 946 men involved in Exercise Tiger – died on the sands and in the shallows, picked off by the enemy.
The disaster was covered up until 1984 when a salvage operation off the beach recovered a Sherman Tank and the truth finally came out.
Author Michael Morpurgo wrote up the story as a children’s book but, later, working with Rice, adapted it as a play for audiences of all ages.
It is a masterpiece of storytelling which has already won the hearts of audiences in the West Country where it first premiered.
I’m not entirely sure it’s now suitable for small children but Morpurgo has never been one to write down or shield youngsters from disturbing themes.
This occasionally shocking, profoundly moving, and frequently fantastically funny and inventive production is a delight from beginning to end.
This beautifully crafted story doesn’t put a foot wrong although some of the small animal puppets and effects could only be seen by theatre-goers sitting high above the stage. The rest of us could only guess at what was happening over a sea of heads.
Warm-hearted, daring, cheeky and bold, its success owes a lot to the remarkable central performance of adult actress Katy Owen who plays the fearsome, rebellious and outspoken 12-year-old, Lily Tregenza.
#Amazing946 is a story of isolation and loneliness as much about a girl and her lost cat or the tragedies of war.
It opens during the present day with an elderly lady mourning the loss of her husband and defying her family by taking off to America to “visit a friend.” Before she goes she gives her grandson a diary and the reading of it opens his eyes.
Flashback to 1944. No-one has much time for Lily on the farm. Her father went off to war with the youngster refusing to say goodbye and steadfastly ignoring him after he admitted drowning her cat’s kittens. Her mum and granddad work all hours to make ends meet.
Lily’s only friend is a ginger mouser called Tips who is as feisty and independent as her owner. Evacuees come to her school, including young Barry who has already lost his dad to the war, and then the Americans come.
It’s the first time the children had ever seen an American and a black man. Their mouths fall open with wonderment especially when the guys, accompanied by the onstage cast members, break into a thrilling dance routine backed by the production’s versatile band.
The music in Amazing946 is as anarchic as the production. The show opens with Bluesman Adebayo Bolaji rocking a seriously cool look in velvet suit, pink shirt/tie combo, trilby and dreads, singing those well known war tunes, Born To Be Wild and Leaving On A Jet Plane.
Later we have Swing Low Sweet Chariot with the audience singing along. Actors swap places to climb up to the mezzanine to take up instruments before hurtling down a fireman’s pole back onto the stage (“I love this pole!” screamed the multi-talented dish, Chris Jared, his long hair flying behind him).
Lily and Barry make friends with servicemen Adolphus (Adi) and Harry (Ncuti Gatwa and Nandi Bhebhe) who bring them chocolates and sausages.
When everyone is forced to leave their homes, and Tips goes missing, the men risk their lives to reunite the moggy with her owner, while playing their part in the catastrophic military cock-up.
“It was supposed to be a rehearsal!” screams Adi. “The Nazis bombed us out of the water!”
Tragedy aside there are some superbly comic scenes. Jared and the rest of the company, play a variety of roles to great effect. Kneehigh’s artistic director, Mike Shepherd, plays a myriad of parts, from granny to grandad, a pervy-looking little schoolboy called Alan, and even sweeps up in the stalls.
Ewan Wardrop’s eye-wateringly funny cameo as country squire, Lord Something-or-Other, was only surpassed by his pantomime dame turn as Barry’s bus driver mum, the flirtatious Ivy.
And Kyla Goodey’s turn as Lily’s mum is just as playful. When the youngster tells her about the black men in the village she declares: “There’s nothing wrong with being different. I’m ginger and proud!”
Inexplicably Nigel Farage gets a name check and Lily’s surreal solution to ending the war – getting Churchill and Hitler to go mano-a-mano in a series of playground games – is hilarious, resulting in “Hitler” (Jared) standing on stage in frilly pink knickers.
This wonderfully creative production ingeniously and effortlessly combines laughter and tears. A magical night of theatre.
946 The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips
Kneehigh’s wonderfully creative production ingeniously and effortlessly combines laughter and tears. Magical.