Image: Warwick Arts Centre

“Kneehigh explodes theatrical tradition”: 946 review

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946 is an adaption of Michael Morpurgo’s famous children’s novel, which follows the story of Lily Tregenza as her grandson Boowie reads her diaries from World War Two. Lily’s life is in a continual state of change; her father is fighting abroad and her village is repossessed for D-Day training by the US army.  In the midst of this chaos is Tips, Lily’s beloved cat, who is lost in the rush to leave the village. Lily befriends two black American soldiers, Harry and Adolphus, who promise to look for Tips. But, in the tragic events of April 1944 Harry is killed, bringing the reality of war sharply into Lily’s world. Eventually Lily’s life returns to normal with the return of her Father and Tips but, as she cryptically notes, ‘the surprise comes right at the very end.’

I remember reading the novel as an eager 10-year-old on holiday near Tyneham, a village similarly repossessed during the war, and being completely engrossed in Lily’s narrative. My inner 10-year-old thus had very high expectations for this performance, and it is safe to say that neither I nor my inner child were disappointed.

As Lily cryptically notes, the surprise comes right at the very end.

On entering the theatre I was immediately struck by how packed the venue was. I don’t think I have seen the theatre so bursting since Kneehigh’s tour last year, which speaks volumes for the reputation and quality of this Cornwall company’s work.

Kneehigh explodes theatrical tradition, creating a refreshingly new, vibrant performance that does not underestimate its audience. Emma Rice’s joyful mode of storytelling beautifully complements this adaption. Music and dance burst at the seams, giving Lily’s story a childlike innocence whilst also cleverly marking the moments of light and darkness in this war-torn Britain. The use of puppetry was also a wonderful addition – a trend that seems to mark adaptions of Morpurgo’s plays, and present in Kneehigh’s Dead Dog In A Suitcase last year – ensuring the transitions between past and present were as fluid and magical as the story, whilst also giving Tips a tangible presence on stage.

Music and dance burst at the seams, giving Lily’s story a childlike innocence.

The casting was exceptional, although I found the decision to cast Mike Shepard as the older version of Lily problematic given the already limited opportunists for female actors – specifically comic female actors – in that age range, especially as it didn’t appear to further the story. Katy Owen as Lily was delightful; her heightened physicality was a treat to watch and her infectious energy lit up the stage.

Adebayo Bolaji and Nandi Bhebhe as Adolphus and Harry were also compulsively watchable; their sequence detailing the loss of life in Exercise Tiger was stunningly emotive. Their delicate communication of the chaos, fear and vulnerability of these young recruits was really commendable, ensuring the sense of loss was accessible for all ages. The lighting and sound design was also especially notable here for its imaginative power, with all the elements of the performance combining to create a striking visual image.

After the last week of political turmoil and despair, this really was the light at the end of the tunnel.

The real delight of the casting, however, was the truly egalitarian presence they held on stage, with no one actor appearing to overtly dominate the space. This cultivated sense of ensemble poignantly emphasised the strength of the Slapton community and by extension, the strength of human co-operation. After the last week of political turmoil and despair, this really was the light at the end of the tunnel. Kneehigh skilfully demonstrated to us the power of a community in the face of tyranny and hardship, and that ultimately love and hope will conquer hate.

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