Kneehigh are back at the Old Vic! If you’ve ever seen this theatre company, you’ll know that their sparkle fits hand in glove with our beautiful Bristol theatre. Bringing unbridled joy to everything they do, this Cornish based riot of colour and vibrancy can turn even the saddest tale into one you’d want to be a real, breathing part of.
So how about a wartime kids’ story by Michael Morpurgo? My daughter and I have seen a few Morpurgo books translated into theatre, almost all of them have concerned animals and war and most have been well performed in monologue. “Is there more than one person in this one?” is a common, slightly whingy question she asks whenever we go to the theatre. “Yep, this one includes lots of actors, singing, dancing and puppets” I replied last night to a relieved smile.
946: The Amazing Story of Aldophus Tips is set at the end of World War II in the coastal village of Slapton in south Devon. Based on historical events, it tells of Lily Treganza, a 12 year old girl whose dad is fighting ‘in the desert’, and her almost constant search for her closest friend, Tips the Cat. It’s also the story of her family and the American soldiers they befriend. It is a glimpse into wartime community, made up of disparate peoples from oversees, evacuees from the town, local farmers/school children and the dead. It’s a revelation about real military mistakes made in the little known ‘Operation Tiger’ and the 946 US soldiers killed off the English coast by German troops as a result, in what was supposed to be a rehearsal for what became known as the D-Day Landings. Heartbreaking.
“It’s quite hard not to dance, isn’t it?” It sure is with this band, directed by Pat Moran and headed by Blues Man Akpore Uzoh, smashing it with Stu Barker’s blues, swing n funk at any given opportunity. It is when Set and Costume Designer Lez Brotherston’s vivid sky blue background set of ladders, sandbags, propeller and bath tubs (water really IS life. And death) tells us so much of what we need to know. And it is with this quality of acting. And wizard puppetry. As Lily, Katy Owen has got pre-teen girls sussed completely and a few times she reminded me of the 10 year old sitting by my side, who even saw herself in Lily, “I do that, don’t I, Mum?” Owen’s stance and facial expressions are just brilliant, her character’s self-absorbed inquisitiveness and energy pouring out, tickling us. As US soldier, Adi, Ncuti Gatwa is as handsome and exotic as those young boys would’ve been, playing the part with a knowing smile. And whenever Gatwa dances with Nandi Bhebhe (as Harry), the two transform an already alive stage into a thing of palpable beauty. A fuss must be made too of both Bhebhe’s fine singing voice and her manipulation of (puppet) Tips the Cat – Girl! You got it ALL going on. The audience loved every moment, it was obvious, but they roared at Ewan Wardrop’s over-the-top performances as Lord Something-or-other and recently widowed, leopard skin-clad, high heeled Mrs Turner. Ha!
Yep, 946 is highly entertaining: Lily’s imagining of Hitler and Churchill’s schoolyard fight is comedy genius. Collectively we sing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ and we even get up to dance – everyone! But please don’t take from this the conclusion that war is funny. Director Emma Rice has, rather, given this Kneehigh production a strong element of humanity, of the lives of real people, helped in no small way by Morpurgo’s writing (Rice and Morpurgo adapted the book to stage together). We are fully aware of the parallels being drawn to today’s Refugee crisis and to the seemingly detrimental strengthening of right-wing politics the world over. We are painfully reminded that unnecessary mistakes can be devastating and that 70 years ago West Country folk had simply never ever seen a black person.
Expect quotes from Maya Angelou, Bertolt Brecht and Martin Luther King and be prepared for them to resonate strongly in 2016. Above all, sit back and enjoy this high-energy show with the name Kneehigh stamped cleverly all over it.
The recommended age of 9+ is just about right. We both loved it!
946: The Story of Adolphus Tips runs at Bristol Old Vic until 20th November
Find out more about Kneehigh here
Image by Steve Tanner, with thanks