The Latitude audience who caught Kneehigh’s latest show, 946, can feel very lucky. Not only was the Theatre Arena completely packed, this wasn’t even the final production – “This isn’t even the dress rehearsal!” – exclaimed director, Emma Rice. Previewing their latest show, the renowned Cornish company managed the feat of becoming the star attraction of the theatre line up despite a cut-off finale due to stage timings.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, the book has been co-adapted by Morpurgo and Rice. Contributing to the ever popular World War Two genre, the play delves into the tragic Operation Tiger that took place at Slapton Sands, Devon in 1944. A whole village was uprooted to allow for D-Day practice landings to occur, and the story centres around Lily Tregenze (Katy Owen) and her childhood life that is disrupted by the war, Yanks, evacuees and her itinerant moggy, Tips.
Blending comedy and tragedy, Kneehigh uses puppetry, a live band, songs, dance and theatre to portray the wartime tale. With cast members interweaving between playing musical instruments and acting, the tension rackets up in 946 until a tremendous second half is delivered. Sure, a fragile Sunday morning festival audience is likely to be more susceptible to emotional turmoil, but the tears shed were truly courtesy of the exceptional performance rather than hangovers. With outstanding singing from Harry (Nandi Bhebhe), memorable songs and an exceptional band, the dramatic storyline of this piece is cemented.
946 does not shy away from tackling the complex issues of war, love and identity in this production. However, the issue of race in a white rural Devonshire village, which is depicted through the characters of black US soldiers Harry (Bhebhe) and Adie (Ncuti Gatwa), does on one occasion feel shoehorned in. At a poignant moment, the use of the word “slavery” feels heavy-handed in a subtle and sensitive script.
Despite the heart-rending topic material, 946 is certainly not a tragedy. The first half is largely funny, with the animal puppets in particular allowing for a break in tension. The dance numbers are great, with Bhebhe and Gatwa enhancing the wartime environment with their jiving. Several sketches gained laughs from the audience, but one mock fight between Churchill and Hitler seems rather confused and ill-fitting with the hyperlocal feel of the play.
The appearance of Rice on stage before the play’s denouement was greeted with an audible gasp of disappointment from the onlookers, as the performance’s climax was denied. Latitude festival-goers may not been allowed the ending, but having seen this magical production before it debuts at the Cornish Lost Gardens of Heligan, it would be churlish to moan.
946 is playing at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall from 25 July – 23 August 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Kneehigh website. Photo by Victor Frankowski.