It’s been just about a year since I got to review Kneehigh Theatre’s thrilling Dead Dog in a Suitcase at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. When I heard they were coming back to my home theatre, I could hardly contain my excitement, and when I heard it was their new show 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, I knew I had to make a trip back home to see it. Directed and adapted by Emma Rice from Michael Morpurgo’s much-loved novel of the same name, I took my seat in the Quarry Theatre and looked forward to seeing the Cornish cliff-jogging stalwarts bring some fun to the stage.
946 follows the story of a young girl named Lily (Katy Owen) who’s always looking for her cat Tips (puppeteered by Nandi Bhebhe) in a village in Devon against the backdrop of the second world war. We meet her family, consisting of stubborn farmer Grandpa (Kneehigh’s Artistic Director Mike Shepherd) and her Mum (Kyla Goodey), and watch as they’re turfed out of their homes by American soldiers taking residence in the village for some training for the D-Day landings. Amongst them are soldiers Adi (Ncuti Gatwa) and Harry (also played by Bhebhe), who try to help Lily find her cat while a war-wracked world and its secrets are unravelled.
There’s so much going on in 946; there’s a wonderful host of classic Kneehigh-style characters, with an ensemble packed to the rafters with cross-dressing, energy and sheer commitment. I must commend the whole company for this – each performance is a gem in its own right, and it would be highly unjust of me to point out specific performances, since this show wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of everyone in the company. Characterisation is beautifully well-considered and realised, thanks to the trademark collaborative directorial style Rice has always held close to her heart.
This piece certainly feels like a nod to Kneehigh’s earlier work, which in recent years has evolved into something very different; there are lovely stylistic shifts in stage dynamic and play-world logic present in productions like Tristan and Yseult and The Red Shoes. Tropes of puppetry and physical storytelling make a welcome and more prominent return to Kneehigh’s arsenal of storytelling techniques, while an onstage band execute some gorgeous new melodies from composer Stu Barker. It’s refreshing to see the company returning back to their roots in a way I haven’t seen them do for quite some time.
Perfectly complementing some lovely, playful and sensitive performances is some stunning design work. It’s easily noticeable in Lez Brotherston’s set design, which catches your eye as soon as you step foot into the cavernous Quarry Theatre. It cleverly incorporates ramshackle bits of wood, tin baths and an aeroplane propeller to thematically link everything together, through nods to temporal austerity and innovation. It’s a set that the company gleefully navigate and use to the best of their ability to tell this vital story – and you can see they’re fully invested and confident in its power to ground an audience in the playful world they’re bringing to life.
Kneehigh have always prided themselves on evoking the power of stories. They are a company that take utter delight in and are increasingly fascinated by the way theatre can touch the hearts of audiences in a shared live experience. You can absolutely tell this from their work, especially 946; it’s full of comedy, occasional darkness and heartfelt poignancy. It’s a well-balanced, joyous night out that leaves you with a smile on your face, and reminds you of the power, authenticity and delight that underpins Kneehigh’s theatre.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until November 5.