Emma Rice’s work is theatrical marmite. You either love it or hate it. For some, her productions for Kneehigh were endlessly innovative, relentlessly entertaining breaths of fresh air. For others, they were monotonous duds, Rice’s dogmatic irreverence rendering adaptation after adaptation resoundingly hollow vessels. 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, a Michael Morpurgo adaptation Rice has pulled from her Cornish back catalogue and shamelessly plonked on her new stage at The Globe, is classic Kneehigh.
One can’t blame Rice for giving it a go. After the National’s international smash-hit War Horse, and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s critically acclaimed Running Wild earlier this year, one could be forgiven for thinking all a director had to do was choose a suitably heart-breaking Morpurgo novel, add a few stage directions, chuck in some puppets, and the plaudits would come flocking in.
946 follows War Horse in its cobbling together of a world war and loveable animal, except here it’s not a horse and World War I, but a cat and the allied preparations for D-Day. Lily Tregenza (a bright-eyed, mischievous Katy Owen) is a precocious young girl, living in the sleepy Devon village of Slapton with her mother (a brisk Kyla Goodey), her grandfather (a gruff Mike Shepherd), an East-End evacuee (an earnest Adam Sopp) and her cat, Tips.
Slapton’s slow trudge through the war is disrupted suddenly by the arrival of thousands of American troops on the long beaches of Devon, where allied forces are covertly preparing for their assault on the Normandy coastline. Turfed out of their home to make room for the trial operations, the Tregenzas are befriended by two African-American privates, the taciturn Harry (Nandi Bhebhe) and the bubbly Adi (Ncuti Gatwa). Unlikely friendships and heartbreaking goodbyes ensue. Oh, and the cat goes missing.
946 is smothered in Kneehigh’s quintessential chutzpah. Stuffed full of song and dance, with almost constant accompaniment from an unexpected blues band camped in the balcony, it brims with invention: a menagerie of farmyard animals are realised as articulated puppets; planes, trains and automobiles roll across The Globe’s bare stage; and the disastrous Operation Tiger, an intelligence cock-up that cost the lives of nearly 1000 men (it wouldn’t be Morpurgo without some tragic loss of life), is compellingly recreated with plastic boats and bath tubs.
But Rice’s unending insistence on championing innovation like this has its price. 946 is tonally inconsistent, particularly in the first half, and for a show about World War II, strikingly emotionally dry. This is partly the fault of an uneven cast, many of whom struggle with The Globe’s unique acoustics, but it’s also the direct consequence of Kneehigh’s unwaveringly swashbuckling approach. Sometimes too much line-dancing and hand-jiving is well, too much. And, for Shakespeare’s sake – this is his gaff, after all – maybe leave the live jazz band at home next time.
946 does achieve something significant: it puts a genuinely family-friendly show on The Globe’s main stage, something that’s been sorely lacking in recent years. But although it’s refreshing to see so many under-12s flocking the yard, one imagines their appreciation of Morpurgo’s finer emotional lessons might be lost amongst all Rice’s noise.
Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole worked hard to steer The Globe away from the perils of becoming a Disney-fied gimmick. Under Rice, with forgettable productions like this where Dromgoole’s earthy histories on played, their hard work is at risk of being undone. But then, as you may have guessed, I can’t stand marmite.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is playing the The Globe until 11 September 2016.
Image by Steve Tanner