BWW Review: 946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS, Shakespeare's Globe, 17 August 2016
Every year, the Globe hosts productions by writers other than Shakespeare - this year it sees the inclusion of Kneehigh Theatre's version of Michael Morpurgo's 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips. Adapted for the stage by Morpurgo and Emma Rice, it sits neatly in the middle of the Wonder Season, prior to embarking on a UK and US tour. On the face of it 946 is a family show, however there really is something for everyone.
The story is largely set in the Devon village of Slapton at the latter end of the Second World War. The Americans have joined in the fight and commandeer the beaches to rehearse for the D-Day landings - in doing so, entire villages (including their evacuees) are forced to relocate for a while.
Lily (Katy Owen) loses her beloved cat, Tips, during the move and forms an unexpected alliance with Privates Madison and Thompson (Ncuti Gatwa and Nandi Bhebhe) to search for her, along with Barry (Adam Sopp). It's a tale of love, the consequences of war, and overcoming adversity.
The stage is bedecked with sandbags and tin baths, as well as two giant propellers attached to the front pillars; everything about Lez Brotherson's design evokes a feeling of nostalgia, and transports the audience back to the 1940s. Puppets and models are used not only to prevent the need for real animals, but also to enable parts of the story to be told visually. A good example is the crash landing of a German soldier via parachute, with actor and puppet moving in unison to create a seamless transition.
All of the music, a combination of jazz standards and original compositions by Stu Barker, is played live by an exceptional blues band, with some of the cast stepping in throughout the course of the show. Their pre-act performances are special indeed, most notably "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" - the entire theatre joining in for the final chorus is one of many spine-tingling moments.
It is a relatively small cast, who show great versatility in playing a variety of roles. This is occasionally played up to the audience with some knowing looks - it in no way detracts from the believability of the piece thanks to the cast's commitment, only making it more entertaining.
Ewan Wardrop is remarkably adept at meeting this challenge, even down to his characters' gait and posture. There are also high physical demands, thanks to hugely energetic choreography from Rice and Etta Murfitt, especially the big band numbers led by Gatwa and Bhebhe.
At the heart of the show are Lily and Barry. Owen and Sopp are clearly not 12-year-old children, however they have perfected the right mannerisms to such a degree that their ages are immaterial - their individual performances and combined chemistry make for compelling viewing.
Katy Owen portrays Lily as a hyperactive, feisty young girl, and shows a real love for Tips. Their eventual reunion is a genuinely touching moment. Adam Sopp's Barry is tinged with sadness at the death of his father at Dunkirk, though shows great resilience through his optimistic and excitable nature. On top of this, he has an excellent instinct for comedy - and is clearly a skilled drummer, joining the band on numerous occasions.
946 is not just a show about a cat; it is so much more than that. There are many important lessons for adults and children alike, wrapped up in instantly hummable tunes and supreme entertainment. The juxtaposition of heartbreak and hilarity makes the emotional moments more stark, and the comedy more satisfying. A special story told in a special place - without a doubt, this is the feel-good hit of the summer.
Box office: 020 7401 9919, http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/
Picture credit: Steve Tanner