946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips

The cast of 946
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

Following a brief run at Shakespeare’s Globe in the summer, Kneehigh’s latest production, 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, has now embarked upon a UK & US tour that stretches until April next year. Its first calling point is Birmingham Rep, followed by Manchester, Leeds, Warwick & Bristol, then Berkeley, LA & New York.

An adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book of almost the same name, 946 begins in the present day & looks back on Lily Tregenza’s life in the final years of the Second World War. First there is an influx of evacuees escaping the Blitz, then the US Army takes over her home village of Slapton – eventually insisting all residents leave their homes so they can prepare for the D-Day landings on the beach. It is at this point that Lily’s beloved cat, Tips, goes missing. GIs Adi & Harry promise to find her, and end up forming a familial bond with the Tregenzas. But the realities of war are never far away, especially when Operation Tiger is on the horizon…

Ncuti Gatwa, Katy Owen and Nandi Bhebhe in 946
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

Whilst there is a heavy dose of music involved in the show (provided by the cast alongside multi-instrumentalists Pat Moran & Seamas Carey), the interweaving is so smooth & seamless that it still feels like a play rather than a musical. Not that the label is hugely important – just like the tag of ‘family theatre’. There really is enough in there to keep people of all ages interested throughout; Morpurgo & Rice don’t resort to pantomime just to entertain the children, nor do they shy away from darker & more serious subject matters. Remarkably, the story encompasses a huge number of themes without ever feeling like there’s too much going on.

Having seen the show at the Globe during its time there, it’s intriguing to note the development of the piece in the month between its final show and heading out on tour. One of those is how much more focused it has become towards the feeling of displacement – from the evacuees to the people of Slapton, and even the American soldiers. Given the ongoing refugee crisis, it has never been more important to give such attention. Lily’s relationship with Barry also has a bit more prominence; it’s a charming subplot to follow, as well as having a bearing on the latter stages of the show.

The main difference, of course, is that 946 has made the move into indoor venues, which creates a different feel but also allows for more technical facets to be explored. Visually, the show is absolutely stunning. Lez Brotherston’s set takes your breath away as soon as the safety curtain lifts and it is revealed: the vivid blue of the sky in the background and the green of the countryside immediately transport you to Slapton. Though with doors in the side & it consisting almost entirely of wooden planks, it is also believable as a variety of buildings. On top of this, Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design is nothing short of incredible. From the technicolour dream that is the “big finish” of the Thanksgiving party, to the beautiful country nights – and not forgetting the fateful Operation Tiger scene.

Ncuti Gatwa and Nandi Bhebhe in 946
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

Puppets also play a big part in the storytelling, whether they are smaller representations (for example, setting the scene at the start with Boowie playing football, or the German soldier parachuting down) that then ‘become’ human, or larger ones that are used alongside the other characters – Tips is an obvious one, as well as Taffy (the sheepdog) and the chickens on the farm. Sarah Wright’s design, coupled with expert handling from the cast, brings this aspect of the show to life so wonderfully that you barely notice the person operating each one.

The music almost feels like an extra character in the story. At the heart of it is an original score by long-time Kneehigh collaborator Stu Barker, along with some jazz standards & popular music. The band’s mini-sets at the beginning of each half incorporate some of the themes of the show, whilst getting the audience in the right mood for what they’re about to see; the feeling of unity as every single person in the room sings along to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a special one indeed. Other highlights include the GIs making their entrance with an energetic performance of Jack, You’re Dead, as well as both renditions of Ticketyboo from Barry and, later on, Mrs Turner. Underpinning most of these numbers is the smooth voice of the Blues Man (Akpore Uzoh).

The cast of 946
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

The cast of ten work extraordinarily hard, all playing more than one part and mucking in as villagers, chickens… You name it, they do it! It’s always absolutely clear who’s playing who at any given point, thanks to clear characterisation from the actor, as well as subtle costume changes. Even the simple addition of a hat switches Nandi Bhebhe from Tips’ puppeteer to Harry the GI, for example.

Ewan Wardrop has possibly the greatest range of characters to portray, adopting a different gait for each one, though the highlight has to be his turn as Barry’s glamorous mother, the insatiable Mrs Turner. Not only does he have the fine detail of a stocking seam drawn on his legs (as was practised during war rationing), but he also has the character traits down to a tee – and you can often spot him in the background fussing over Barry.

Ncuti Gatwa & Nandi Bhebhe make an electrifying combination as GIs Adi & Harry, throwing themselves into relentless choreography and bantering on the sidelines. The bonus of having Bhebhe in this role is that her wonderful singing can be shown off to its full potential – the soul in her voice is indescribable and incredibly moving.

Adam Sopp and Katy Owen in 946
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

It’s an interesting move to cast adults as school children, but one that makes complete sense when you think that they are the focal point of a fast-moving show. It of course adds to the comedy value at times, but also means that the emotional side of things (a strong feature in this show) can be played on more convincingly & in a more relatable manner for the audience as a whole. And when you have actors as skilful as Adam Sopp & Katy Owen on board, their real ages become immaterial as the audience becomes immersed in the story.

Sopp is earnest & sweet as evacuee Barry, immediately taking a liking to the more boisterous Lily. With a ready grin & bags of energy, Barry is instantly lovable and you can’t help but feel for him when he gets picked on or has trouble coping with the loss of his father. Sopp’s sense of comedy is impeccable, particularly with a knowing look to the audience as Boowie confesses how much he liked Barry! When he’s not onstage as Boowie or Barry, he more often than not can be found up on the platform in the band – once on double bass, but usually behind the drums. Sopp is a terrifically gifted drummer and clearly relishes the opportunity to get the sticks in his hands.

There is a wonderful chemistry between Sopp & Owen (Lily) that translates to an endearing, as well as entertaining, friendship onstage. Owen herself is absolutely outstanding. At times you often find yourself wondering if she actually is a twelve-year-old girl, thanks to her height & youthful looks. She also has the mannerisms of a girl of that age spot on; Owen has previously said that the key is to always keep moving, so Lily is a typically fidgety child, quite often fiddling with her hair or her dress. It’s difficult to fully express just how brilliant she is; if you saw her turn as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe this summer, you will be aware of the adventurous talent she possesses. For me, there is no one on any stage that can compete with her at present.

Katy Owen in 946
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

My verdict? A show that proves you can get a serious message across whilst being supremely entertaining – guaranteed to make you leave the theatre feeling tickety-boo!

Rating: 5*

946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips runs across the country until 20 November 2016, and tours America from 2 December 2016 until 9 April 2017. Full details and tickets are available online and from individual box offices.

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