Kneehigh, the seriously playful British theater company that turned the classic film “Brief Encounter” into a charmingly inventive multimedia stage play, is back at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts with “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips,” a sprightly adaptation of the children’s novel by “War Horse” author Michael Morpurgo.
Centered on a bratty 12-year-old named Lily (Katy Owen), “946” spins a yarn about a sleepy rural English town adjusting to new realities during World War II. Lily’s father has left to fight the Germans, rationing is in place and the town is full of evacuees, including Barry (Adam Sopp), whose father was killed at Dunkirk, and Madame Bounine (Emma Darlow), the new teacher who fled France after the Nazis invaded.
Despite all the tumult, Lily’s daily routine in her Devon village remains pretty much intact. When she’s not on the farm looking for her beloved cat, Tips, she’s causing trouble at school.
Dramatic changes occur, however, after Allied servicemen arrive to conduct secret military exercises nearby in preparation of the D-day invasion. This rehearsal doesn’t go according to plan, and for Lily, who has enlisted two African American GIs, Adi (Ncuti Gatwa) and Harry (Nandi Bhebhe), to search for her cat, the experience is life-altering.
Unlike the Tony-winning play “War Horse,” “946” doesn’t dwell on the horrors of war. Instead of horses bloodied by barbed wire and shrapnel, there’s a sweetly aloof feline (played by a plush toy puppet) who pretty much knows how to take care of herself.
In true Kneehigh fashion, the show aims to delight with frolicsome theatricality. Director Emma Rice, whose long creative history with Kneehigh helped propel the company to international renown before she decamped to lead Shakespeare’s Globe, works her signature rough magic with the troupe.
The production, presented in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, mixes marionette puppetry and British pantomime with an acting style that turns the characters into flesh-and-blood cartoons. The performers gambol, don wigs, affect funny accents, dance like kooks and fall down with slapstick abandon on Lez Brotherston’s colorful, shape-shifting set.
All is relentlessly bouncy on this theatrical home front. A versatile jazz band, fronted by a character named Blues Man (Akpore Uzoh), sets the action aloft with swing by composer Stu Barker (whose music has long been a main ingredient of Kneehigh’s secret sauce). Daydreams and nightmares spring to life. Hitler and Churchill face off in a rope-skipping contest.
The nonstop cuteness, put at the service of a story that’s streaked with sentimentality, may strike sterner sensibilities as grating. The desire to please leads to an overindulgence of horseplay. The storytelling is so lackadaisical it loafs. The problem isn’t the length of the script (co-written by Morpurgo and Rice), but the goofy space filler that unduly stretches the narrative.
After a music-enlivened prelude, the story starts off in the present with a death. Newly widowed Grandma (Mike Shepherd, Kneehigh’s artistic director rocking granny drag) bestows on her grandson, Boowie (Sopp, not alone doing double duty), the diary of her girlhood years during World War II. She wants to impress on him that life, a rollicking adventure if you treat it as such, is a “supreme” gift.
The play travels back to the war years when Grandma, known now simply as Lily, is busy stirring up trouble like an English Pippi Longstocking. Owen doesn’t soften Lily’s obnoxious qualities. The girl’s age and wartime stress, which she cordons off in a corner of her young mind, excuse her behavior. The production, however, would deepen our investment in Lily’s story if her tomfoolery left a little more room for the momentous turns in the plot.
Nothing is more momentous than the true (and for too long secret) history of that catastrophic D-day rehearsal known as Operation Tiger. This tragedy is delicately woven into “946,” the title of which comes from the number of servicemen who lost their lives on that April day in 1944.
The break from the relentless fizziness may seem incongruous, but the war is never really out of mind. (I’m not sure if there’s an age group that “946” is ideally targeting, but a bright 10-year-old I met during the intermission told me he was enjoying the experience, so I’m going to assume 10 and up.)
Kneehigh may not have all that much faith in the attention spans of theatergoers, young and old alike, but the show imparts lessons on tolerance, grapples with questions of mortality and morality, and salutes those with the courage to meet the formidable challenges of their era. Adventure, fun and all that makes life “ticketyboo,” as one song phrases it, are also celebrated.
“In the dark times, will there be singing?” The question, borrowed from Bertolt Brecht at the top of the show and answered resoundingly in the affirmative, seemed to make the opening-night audience at the Wallis collectively quiver. “946” may go a little heavy on the sugar accompanying the timely message, but the company’s frisky heart is in the right place.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips’
Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions); ends March 5
Tickets: $39-$129 (subject to change)
Information: (310) 746-4000, www.thewallis.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
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