In what's become a welcome, holiday-season tradition at Berkeley Rep, Britain's Kneehigh Theatre company has returned once more for their fourth production on a Berkeley stage, a new piece adapted from a World War II-set novel by Michael Morpurgo (of War Horse fame), titled 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips. This compelling and musical piece of theater marks the culmination of a five-year co-programming plan concocted by Berkeley Rep and Kneehigh back in 2011 when the group first brought The Wild Bride to the US and it is, by design, a story that includes both British and American characters.
As in War Horse, Morpurgo's story creates a fictional tale around a child and an animal set against real-life historical events, in this case a previously classified wartime tragedy involving American soldiers on the southeast coast of England in 1944 and as with the stage adaptation of War Horse, puppetry is used throughout the piece to portray some animal characters. But unlike that production, which was adapted by a different company with help from South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, Adolphus Tips benefits mightily from the ingenuitive stagecraft of director Emma Rice and designer Lez Brotherston, and the boundless energy of this cast.
I would recommend going in blind as I did, without reading on for any spoilers, because with all that Kneehigh has done in the Bay Area over the last seven years (including 2009's Brief Encounter at ACT, The Wild Bride in both 2011 and early 2013, and 2013's Tristan & Yseult), surprise and exuberant delight are the name of the game. And just as a hint, Emma Rice sums up her attraction to the story the way her mother pointed it out to her, saying "it had everything I loved... cats, Dorset, and a motorcycling granny."
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips centers on a young girl, 12-year-old Lily Tregenza, and her cat named Tips, and the story of how their family becomes one of many uprooted and impacted by World War II specifically a little known American operation called Exercise Tiger. The operation, intended as a rehearsal for D-Day at Normandy because of the similarity of the conditions of Slapton Sands, which also fronted on the English Channel, was a disaster after it was detected by several German E-Boats and multiple US vessels were fired upon with torpedoes. Slapton, along with six other villages, had to be evacuated in order to accommodate the operation, and Adolphus Tips picks up at the moment where the first American troops arrive in town, specifically a regimen of African-American soldiers who were all the more an unfamiliar presence for the children of the village. (There is also a nice device involving the present day, and a diary, and that motorcycling grandmother.)
Adults portray children in the Kneehigh world, and Lily is played with admirable mania and physical comedy by actress Katy Owen, who originated the role in England this past summer. Everyone in the piece, Owen included, play multiple roles, in addition to playing musical instruments and operating a number of puppets, and though it's hard to pick out standouts in this marvelous cast, Ncuti Gatwa is great as American soldier Adi, Adam Sopp is terrific as Lily's first crush Barry, and Ewan Wardrop also does a phenomenal job in multiple roles, stealing virtually every scene he's in, particularly as Mrs. Turner.
The play opens with an almost rhetorical question by Bertolt Brecht, "In the dark times, will there also be singing?" The piece answers that quickly, with hummable original songs throughout by Stu Barker that intermingle with popular songs and rollicking dance numbers set to swing music. And though this may not be a musical in the most traditional sense, it is, much like Tristan & Yseult, a theater piece that relies heavily on music and dance to tell its story.
Adolphus Tips meets its tragic climax in the second act, when 946 American troops, including Adi's best friend, are killed in the botched rehearsal operation, but the play does well to illustrate the emotional evolution of the English villagers from reluctance, to stoicism, to gratitude for the Americans' help in ultimately winning the war and saving England from occupation.
Perhaps in true British fashion, the play glosses over the massive loss of life that occurred in England during the course of the war, focusing mostly on these first American lives lost before the D-Day invasion as a dramaturg's bit of trivia, posted in the restroom, notes, the UK only returned to its pre-WWII population level in 2015 (some 460,000 British lives were lost in the war, including an estimated 67,000 civilians).
Pacing in the opening act is the only notable flaw in the piece, with a few moments, especially one involving Lily and her cat, that felt rocky. Overall, though, 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is an inspiring and very funny show that will delight adults and children alike, and feels all the more appropriate in a holiday season overshadowed by talk of fascism and amorphous fears for the future. Let there be more art like this to see us through.