BWW Review: The British Invade Beverly Hills with 946: AN AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS

As a show of appreciation to America for bailing them out of WWII, England has sent us a gift in the form of a wacky musical. On behalf of all Americans everywhere, I accepted this gift last Friday night at the Wallis.

946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS comes to us from Kneehigh, a United Kingdom-based theatre company (strangely enough they actually spell it "theater" in their press release). The story is adapted from Michael Morpurgo's young adult novel of the same name, and set in the midst of World War II.

The story centers on Lily (Katy Owen), a 12-year-old farm girl living in the small seaside village of Slapton, England. Lily's peaceful life is abruptly upended when the US Military makes her entire town evacuate so the Allies can utilize the city for an elaborate training exercise - a full-scale D-Day rehearsal, complete with explosions.

Everybody in the town evacuates; everybody except Lily's beloved cat, Tips. Two African-American soldiers befriend Lily and her family, and promise to look for Tips while they are training near her home. After they are unable to catch him, Lily runs into the war zone herself to try to get her cat back (it's kind of like War Horse, except instead of a horse there's a cat).

How Was It

Short Answer: Very British and wacky.

Long Answer:

It's two and a half hours of eye-candy and magic, but also severely void of emotional substance. If Julie Taymor were to direct The Three Stooges, you would get 946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS.

Back in ancient times, Aristotle ranked the essential six elements of theatre. They were, in order:

  1. Plot;
  2. Character;
  3. Theme;
  4. Language;
  5. Rhythm; and,
  6. Spectacle

Story ruled supreme, and arguably still does. No matter how much money you throw at something, if the script is lacking the production will fail. This is true with theatre, film, and TV.

Kneehigh apparently ranks Aristotle's six elements in reverse order. Spectacle rules supreme in 946, while plot and character take a disappointing backseat. Puppets dance around on stage and water cannons explode, but the audience is left feeling detached from most of the characters. I feel this is largely due to how Kneehigh created the script.

Kneehigh's creatives laud themselves on making this a quasi-devised piece. According to Emma Rice, the musical's director:

"In traditional plays, everyone sits around a table with a script and by the end of the rehearsals nobody has a script because they have worked out what the words meant. We work the opposite way 'round, in which nobody has any scripts at the beginning. Bit by bit you feed in the words, and people learn their lines at the last minute because I see the words being the tip of the iceberg, not the iceberg. The story is the iceberg."

(I blatantly plagiarized that quote from a Los Angeles Times interview Rice did with Christopher Smith last Wednesday. I would use my own quote, but since I'm apparently not as cool as Christopher Smith, Rice hasn't responded to my questions, yet. Whatever. I ain't bitter.)

I call 946 a quasi-devised piece because it is actually based on a children's novel written by the highly respected author who wrote War Horse. Here, that author built a solid foundation for Kneehigh to work with, but instead of hiring union carpenters and professional painters to complete the structure, they made the intentional decision to have actors messily slap up boards and then hurl cans of paint at what could have been an architectural masterpiece.

Here are some dramaturgical issues I had with this "script":

First, I wanted to see Lily get blown up. No disrespect to the talented Katy Owen, who played her like a champ, but this twelve-year-old girl's character is an angry, annoying, caricature of a cockney girl. She's just a plain brat. She screams every line like an angry daemon child. LITERALLY! EVERY! LINE! GETS! SCREAMED! And when she's not busy screaming at people, she's trying to physically fight them.

I felt absolutely no empathy for her; I didn't get attached to her; there was no emotional depth to the show's protagonist. In fact, I hated this girl so much I kept praying she'd be the first character to die.

I think Morpurgo was going for a more amiable "weird" character with Lily. While Lily certainly was strange in this adaptation, she was also aggressively angry to the point that her weirdness ceased being quirky and lovable and instead turned into a spoiled Jerry Springer trailer trash type of weird.

In MATILDA THE MUSICAL, the title character is also a weird little girl. She's also a little bit "naughty". Yet, she's lovable, has a big heart, and the audience feels for her. We don't get that much needed empathy here with Lily. It was almost like they decided to make a poor version of Violet Beauregarde from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory the protagonist.

Lily's character wasn't the only thing critically lacking emotional depth. The entire musical lacked emotional meat. There was a clear trade-off between creating a wacky physical comedy and a moving World War II story. Most the characters were so goofy, the production should have just went all the way and stuck them in clown costumes. This show is closer to an unusually aesthetically pleasing circus act than a musical.

The show does have its merits, though. The design is spectacular and very creative. Pictures are worth so much more than words when it comes to design, and video is worth even more than pictures. Luckily, Kneehigh has given us a pretty sweet trailer that gives an accurate glimpse into the design. Feast your eyes:

In addition to the outstanding design, the production also has:

  • Some great choreography;
  • Really committed and versatile performers; and,
  • A hilarious Churchill v. Hitler fist fight.

Nandi Bhebhe (Harry, a US Solider) was a standout of the night. Bhebhe's voice captivated the whole room in every number she sang. She has a very powerful Michael Jacksony sound.

Katy Owen (Lily) was also a standout. Although I hated her character, she committed to a very strong performance. Strong dance moves and boundless energy made Owen very watchable on stage. Although she has to be at least double Lily's age, she played a very convincing twelve year old.

Who Should See It

If you love The Three Stooges and physical comedy, 946 will entertain you. If you think physical comedy is dated and aggressively boring (like me), it will likely fall flat for you.

I recommend 946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS to anyone who loves: The Three Stooges, Four Clowns, clowning in general, physical comedy, and shiny things.

How to See It

946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS runs February 9 to March 5 at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills (9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210).

Tickets range from $29 - $129 and are available online at or by phone by calling (310) 746-4000.

Photo Credits: Steve Tanner

More Pretty Pictures:

Lily (Katy Owen) kissing her cat.
Nandi Bhebhe (Harry).
Adam Sopp and Katy Owen.

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From This Author George Brietigam

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