BWW Review: Innovative 946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo Dazzles at the Wallis
The brilliant theatricality of Kneehigh, the innovative United Kingdom-based theater company, is on display at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts through March 5, 2017 with the Los Angeles premiere of 946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo. This production was adapted by Morpurgo and Emma Rice, who also directs, and is a Kneehigh* production presented in association with Birmingham Repertory and Berkeley Repertory Theatres. And if you were amazed and dazzled by the puppetry in War Horse, be sure to grab tickets for the remaining performances 946 before it leaves town!946 is a tender coming-of-age tale that uncovers the secrets behind World War II's D-Day landings. Set in the idyllic seaside village of Slapton Sands, the lives of Lily, her family, and her fiercely independent cat Tips are barely touched by war until American soldiers occupy their house and surrounding land. With a live onstage swing band, enchanting puppetry and Kneehigh's signature stage sorcery, director Emma Rice configures a story of love, war and prejudice that crosses borders both geographical and generational. Adapter and director Rice shares, "The power of love for an animal... is something that Michael Morpurgo profoundly understands. 946 allows us to remember the intense passions, senses and fears of being a child, and through this deceptively simple lens a global, timeless and political vision appears. This story is so full of heart and wonder that it bursts through the page, through the generations and through the soul. With a lightness of touch that dances on our collective memory, it tells us of innocence and loss, of love and prejudice. I loved every moment of bringing this story to theatrical life." And that love shines from moment to moment onstage.
The star of the show is Katy Owen who plays the main character, young and energetic French teenager Lily Tregenza, who spends most of the production loving and then searching for her cat Tibs after the family is displaced from their home by World War II soldiers seeking to protect them from attack. As is true with all cast members, her energy level never wavers, even though she is called upon to act, dance, sing, run across the stage, climb the ladder to the orchestra, and reach for the stars with her amazing leaps. Ms. Owens shines while enjoying the company of her beloved cat with the aforementioned Ms. Bhebhe handling the animal's puppetry so realistically that you will forget he is not real. Her performance so dominates the production, you won't be able to resist the magic and youthful wonder she brings to the production.
The same is true for all the other actors who take on puppet roles, making them all the more real with their movement wizardry. The entire production is composed of 12 performers, some of whom are also band members and alternate between playing instruments as well as character parts. Most notably is violinist extraordinaire Emma Darlow who also portrays the undies-revealing, bicycle-riding schoolteacher Madame Bounine.
To prove that sexuality should not matter onstage, many roles are played cross-gender, most notably Nandi Bhebhe as the puppet Tips the Cat and the shy solider Harry, as well as Mike Shepherd who had the audience roaring during his portrayal of Grandma Present, especially when his rocking chair broke beneath him, seemingly unexpectedly, resulting in the most outrageous ad libs! Another dual-role playing actor is Adam Sopp who plays Boowie, the grandson whose reading of a diary sets the stage for the production, and Barry, the young teen who enrolls in Lily's class and falls for her. Their first kiss is brilliantly heartwarming in its clumsy inception!
Two actors portray Adi (Ncuti Gatwa and Blues Man Akpore Uzoh who also leads the band which rocks the house), the black solider who meets Lily and her family after he lands in France on D-Day and proceeds become the family's protector. The landing is played out using many metal bathtubs and buckets filled with water, placed downstage on the set designed by Lez Brotherston, who also designed the many time-appropriate production costumes. When the battle takes place, you will be captivated by the outstanding lighting and sound design as they mingle to creatively represent the D-Day landing, the ships involved, and the toll it took on the ill-prepared soldiers.
Single tickets for the remaining performances of 946 through Sunday, March 5, 2017 are available for $29 - $129. Performance Schedule: Tues - Fri at 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 2pm & 7pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit TheWallis.org, call 310.746.4000, or stop by in person at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Ticket Services located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
Kneehigh is a Cornwall based theatre company with a local, national and international profile. For over 30 years they have created vigorous, popular and challenging theatre and perform with joyful anarchy. Kneehigh tell stories. Based in breathtaking barns on the south coast of Cornwall, Kneehigh create theatre of humanity on an epic and tiny scale. They work with an ever-changing ensemble of performers, artists, technicians, administrators, makers and musicians, and are passionate about their multi-disciplined creative process. In 2010 Kneehigh launched the Asylum, a beautiful and flexible nomadic structure, which means they now have a venue to call home as well as being one of the leading touring theatre companies in the UK. They have now presented six Asylum seasons and will continue to reinvent the space and explore new locations in future years. Alongside their national and international touring and Asylum seasons, they run the Kneehigh Rambles, aiming to engage creatively with communities in Cornwall and beyond through event and adventure.
Photos by Steve Tanner