West Yorkshire Playhouse, Wednesday, 2nd November 2016.
O Kneehigh, what a wonder you are!
This is a long one folks, it simply cannot be otherwise, so settle in…
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; of humanity and of the devastating consequences of human ineptitude. 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). To put into words just how much I loved this production will be very difficult, but I shall of course attempt to do so, nevertheless… Let me start by saying that ‘946’ is truly brilliant and exquisite in the truest sense of those words. There was not a single minute of this performance in which I was not totally entranced with the energy, the vibrancy, the heartbreak and the genius of what Kneehigh was showcasing on stage.
The challenges presented by such an ambitious production seem to have been greeted with relish and mind boggling innovation, gifting us with some stunning visuals and infinite creativity as each element of masterful trickery played out. Chickens, dogs, sheep and cats? No problem! Motorbikes, cars, tractors, bicycles aircrafts and huge naval ships? Sure thing! With a few tin baths, toy boats, some sort of crimson, artificial shells and just a little help from lighting/sound, and ten metres in front of me was a war zone. With no more than a glitterball and a little bright lighting, there I was at a village hall dance, and so on and so on- Kneehigh really do make the possibilities seem endless, and I honestly believe that there is nothing they could not conjure upon a stage. What’s more, the precision in this production was superb, with absolutely no detail spared- after all, why have the actors simply bring desks on stage when they can make the chore a parade, complete with swirling choreography and a little ditty? It simply oozed quality from every pore; everything, from the tossing of underpants and change-over of props, to the many perfectly timed entrances, somehow coinciding with some sort of physical gag on the other side of the door.
The set design, props and puppets were also particularly great strengths. The set (set and costume by Lez Brotherston) allowed for a Mary Poppins approach to props; any shape, any size and from any direction – and that sense of defying the difficult or impossible ran through the whole production. I always love seeing the live musical accompaniment in Kneehigh’s shows, so I was particularly pleased that set allowed the opportunity to see them as a constant, atop the main stage space in a barn/loft space. It was a lovely way to allow for appreciation of the team beyond the actors.
I’ve come to associate Michael Morpurgo’s work with puppetry; his novels always seem to lend themselves to transposition for the stage so beautifully, and this production’s use of puppetry was just as moving and impressive as those used in ‘War Horse’ (just produced in a smaller, less spectacular scale). I was completely taken with the miniature puppets, as much as the life-sized and the use of mini-characters just before the entrance of the ‘real ones’ was, I think, a very clever way of reminding the audience of the wonders of childhood imaginings. Sometimes the figures are mere imagination, and other times, the gap between the imagined and the realised is plugged and out pop two historical figures for a skipping-clapping stand-off. Did I believe and totally invest in that little cat and that fluffy looking sheep dog? Absolutely, and that’s why I adore puppetry; done well, there’s no creature I can’t be induced to believe in, whether they are made of wicker or plastic bags, it’s all in the magical hands of the designers and the puppeteers (all credit of course, to puppet makers Lyndie Wright and Sarah Wright and Puppet Director, Sarah Wright for equipping the puppeteers with such splendid imitations of life).
The cast were phenomenal; their ability to multi-role alone makes them wonderful, but factor in the dancing, the singing and the playing of instruments, and you’ve got yourself a stage awash with glorious talent. It’s not the norm to comment on all cast members in reviews, but this production and these performances have inspired me to deviate and comment on ALL of them, because they absolutely deserve it! Katy Owen’s portrayal of the exuberant, feisty young girl, Lily Tregenza, was perfection. I’ve seen 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 were minute in action but carried great weight in authenticity. The awkwardness, the ferocious shouts, the coyness and the hurt were equally affecting and I thought Owen was an absolute knock-out in the role.
Owen is not the only star of this production, however, for Kneehigh’s entire cast shine very, very brightly in this production. What I really appreciated with ‘946’ was that each character was permitted stage time to show depth; the hilarious characters were allowed to raise tears and the introverts were given their moment to vent- no one character was one dimensional and as I said, the multi-rolling was sharp as a tack and unendingly impressive. I loved that the teacher (Emma Darlow) was both the butt of jokes as the snooty Madame but also the incredibly sympathetic voice of all Jews fleeing the war on humanity. Likewise, rational, put-upon mum (Kyla Goodey) was a bit of a flirt while holding on to her heartbreak. Likewise, Goodey morphing into an absolutely hilarious, Kathy Burke-as-Perry-esque child, with a skill for mimicking a pigeon when feeling nifty, allowed Goodyear a generous amount of stage time in which to impress.
Chris Jared proved himself an excellent chameleon of an actor, playing all sorts of roles but most memorably as the skipping Hitler, played with expert restraint. Mike Shepherd was thoroughly fantastic as Grandma present, grandad past and the little boy. I believed every role; the gutsy grandma, the stoic grandad and the adorable schoolboy, whose attempted escape was one of my favourite comic moments. Adam Sopp as Boowie and Barry and Ewan Wardrop as Mrs Turner, Lord Something-or-other and Chamberlain were equally impressive in their ability to have the entire audience laughing as one voice. The whole cast seemed supremely gifted in their physical comedy capabilities and the heavy use of visual gags were well placed and very well played. The Barry-Lily almost-kisses had me laughing both in and after the moment, such was the depth of the hilarity; the eventual horrifyingly yucky kiss quite possibly deserving of a Best Stage Kiss award. Akpore Uzoh led the musicians (Pat Moran and Seamas Carey), and he was charisma personified, seeming to be chanelling his inner James Brown with one of the first numbers; that satin villain was certainly one class act of an opening act.
Particularly moving were 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 me streaming with tears and those around me audibly sniffing. To go from this sadness and the sobering narrative of just what happened to 946 soldiers, to more laughs and a positively joyous finale was beautifully done, with transitions so swift, there was barely time to acknowledge your own reactions as the production whizzed on. Notably, seeing this show at this point in the year made the elements highlighting man’s inhumanity to man so much more devastating; consciousness of the lives lost in war is high and subsequently, seeing that loss represented as a single character, or life, in which we had invested was deeply moving.
I can find no single flaw to comment on when I think about Kneehigh’s ‘946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips’, so all that is left to say is this: after seeing three wonderful productions, to my mind, Kneehigh has become synonymous with true theatrical brilliance and I shall be writing to request a lifetime membership to their not-yet-in-existence fan girl club. Oh yes, and one more thing- as Emma Rice’s direction was evidently a golden stamp on this theatrical package, I shall belatedly offer my reaction to the recent furore regarding her departure from The Globe… *clears throat and channels best Winifred Sanderson voice*, ‘Fools! All of you!’ It is so glaringly evident that the direction leading to such versatility and vitality blazing across that stage is to be treasured- I can only imagine the results of Rice’s vision applied to Shakespeare’s greats.