West Yorkshire Playhouse, Wednesday, 2nd November 2016.
O Kneehigh, what a wonder you are!
Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book by Emma Rice and Morpurgo himself, Kneehigh’s ‘946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips’ is a hilarious, moving and thoroughly enchanting story of worlds colliding and the strength of human relationships. It’s also a tale of history, both political and personal, with family and friendships at the very centre (furry family members included, of course).
In true Kneehigh fashion, the challenges presented by such an ambitious production seem to have been greeted with relish and innovation, gifting us with some stunning visuals and infinite creativity. Chickens, dogs, sheep and cats? No problem. Motorbikes, cars, tractors, bicycles aircrafts and huge naval ships? Sure thing! Kneehigh really do make the possibilities seem endless.
Lez Brotherston’s set beautifully allows the opportunity to see the live band as a constant atop the main stage space in a barn/loft space. The set also allows for a Mary Poppins approach; anything, any shape, any size and from any direction – and that sense of defying the difficult or impossible runs through the whole production.
I’ve come to associate Michael Morpurgo’s work with puppetry and this production’s use of puppetry is very charming and moving – all credit to puppet makers Lyndie Wright and Sarah Wright (also Puppet Director). I was completely taken with the puppets and the use of mini-characters just before the entrance of the ‘real ones’ is a very clever way of reminding the audience of the wonders of childhood imaginings.
The cast are superb. Factor in plenty of quick changes, dancing, singing and the playing of instruments, and you’ve got yourself a stage awash with glorious talent. Katy Owen’s portrayal of the exuberant, feisty young girl Lily Tregenza is perfection. There have of course been excellent portrayals of children before, but I’ve never seen an actor embody the mannerisms and the very essence of unpredictable, erratic youth so well. The inability to control her facial expressions, her flailing runs and her tendency to let her legs and/or feet act separately to the rest of her body are of course minute in action but carried great weight in authenticity. The awkwardness, the ferocious shouts, the coyness and the hurt are equally affecting and Owen is fantastic in the role.
Chris Jared proves himself a great chameleon, playing all sorts of roles but most memorably as the skipping Hitler, played with expert restraint. Mike Shepherd is thoroughly fantastic as the gutsy grandma, the stoic grandad and the adorable schoolboy (whose attempted escape is a real comic highlight). Adam Sopp as Boowie and Barry and Ewan Wardrop as Mrs Turner, Lord Something-or-other and Chamberlain are equally impressive in their ability to have the entire audience laughing as one voice.
Particularly moving are the performances of Ncuti Gatwa and Nandi Bhebhe, playing Adi and Harry respectively. They are introduced as a dapper, jolly GI duo before being torn apart in the most heartbreaking moments of the show. Harry’s subsequent song (Composer- Stu Barker) had those around me audibly sniffing. From that sobering narrative of just what happened to 946 soldiers we move to more laughs and a positively joyous finale, a skilful shift that is beautifully done.
As a story which boasts so much charm and heartbreak and fun, this is a gorgeous production, there’s just no two ways about it.