Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
In 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, the Brits react to the privations and heartache of war not simply by carrying on, but by dancing, singing, loving, and generally rising to every occasion with grace and vigor. The production currently playing at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre is by the U.K.'s brilliantly imaginative Kneehigh Theatre, who also brought their wonderful The Wild Bride to Berkeley in 2013. I loved The Wild Bride, but 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips lifts Kneehigh's inventiveness and sheer theatrical joy to an even higher level. The company delivers spectacular staging, inspired performances, and visual wit within a homespun aesthetic that makes its underlying excellence all the more accessible.
The story, from a book by Michael Morpurgo of War Horse fame and adapted for the stage by him and Kneehigh artistic director Emma Rice, takes place primarily in 1943 on the Cornish coast, where young Lily Tregenza and her mother and Grandad watch the farm while her father is away fighting Rommel in the African desert. Lily, played to absolute perfection by Katy Owen, is often searching for her cat Tips, who wanders off, leading Lily (and others) into various adventures. Things only get more interesting when her little Cornwall town of Slapton is invadedtwice. First, by an influx of evacuee children, sent to the countryside to keep them safe from German bombing raids on London, and then by American troops who arrive to participate in rehearsals for the D-Day landing, providing a love interest for more than one generation of character.
It's difficult to say what is most beguiling about this production. Is it the wonderfully imaginative use of marionettes to portray Tips the cat and various other animals on the farm? Perhaps it's the propsfrom a full-size tractor and airplane propeller to tiny landing craft and a miniature farmhouse (with smoking chimney)that take us deep into the story on many different levels. Maybe it's the bandon a platform upstageand the music they play that provides the emotional soundtrack for the action elsewhere on stage. Or the way the band and the actors move seamlessly from one role to another. Or the panto humor that comes from men sometimes playing women and women sometimes playing men.
Much of the charm certainly comes from the delightful performance by Katy Owen as 12-year-old Lily. Owen embodies the bouncy energy and fresh-eyed worldview of youth more authentically than I have ever seen by any adult performer. She alone is a reason to see this show. Her hard stares, playful physicality, and ability to portray the emotion children of that age attempt (and fail) to keep from adults is absolutely mesmerizing.
This is to take nothing from the rest of the cast, who also light up the stage with their own individual brilliance. As Boowie (in the contemporary scenes) and Barry (in the flashbacks to 1943), Adam Sopp gives genuine life to both young men. But the star of the show (after Owen) is Mike Shepard's portrayals of Grandma (in the WWII scenes) and Grandad (in the present). His creative light shines with a tremendous lustre, and his comic timing is impeccable.
The set, by Lez Brotherson (who has also worked with genius choreographer/director Matthew Bourne), is both joyous and ominous. Is its giant, blue sky wooden framework a representation of the epicenter of an explosion, or a vortex of joy, or a wormhole through time? Whatever it is, the surrounding sandbag walls and water-filled tubs never let the audience forget that this coastal town is part of a great war.
There is so much to love about this marvelous production, not the least of which is that it's a perfect introduction for children to the joys of theatre. It's probably a little too tense for those under 10, but for anyone else it provides a sincere, emotion-filled, joyous look at life under difficult circumstancesreminding people of all ages of the enduring powers of love and human connection. Keep calmand carry yourself to Berkeley Rep for this amazing show.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, in association with Kneehigh and Birmingham Repertory Theatre, runs through January 15, 2016, in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday. There are Thursday 2:00 p.m. matinees on Thursday December 22 and January 12. Tickets from $45-$97, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets are available online at www.berkeleyrep.org, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.