This was the second time I had the pleasure to watch Kneehigh’s production of ‘946 The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips’ – a staged adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s famous novel, adapted by Michael Morpurgo himself, and expertly directed by Emma Rice. I first saw this production at Latitude Festival 2015, and was lucky enough to reprise this experience, this month, at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Seeing this production for the second time gave me a far more insightful and intimate perspective, and I was thus truly captivated by the piece. As both a visual and musical spectacle, this production utilized the relationship between story and song, credit especially to Composer Stu Barker and Music Director Pat Moran, whose endless talent and innovation is evident. The musical element of this production consisted of an impressive ensemble of jazz/blues musicians, who potently adorned the storyline throughout with memorable melodies and potent lyrics – led by the incredible vocals and slick, suave charisma of Adebayo Baloaji, who’s role within the play ascended from soulful, watchful narrator to a principal part of the plot (no spoilers!). I particularly loved the manner in which certain characters would suddenly join these musicians upon the elevated stage (part of the impressive set), thus literally watching over the actors’ continued performance, whilst suitably and sensitively accompanying the action. This demonstrates the array of talent displayed by the cast – a standout example being Emma Darlow, who played the violin which as much emotive beauty and sensitivity as she played the tragic figure of Madame Bounine. On the topic of incredible talent, Ncuti Gatwa (Adi) and Nandi Bhebhe (Harry/Tips) stole the show; their charming, captivating double act – a clear representation of the elusive ‘Yanks’ – combining remarkable dance ability with sincere, often emotive acting. Bhebhe, who was initially dominated by the confidence of Gatwa’s character, later impressed with the sudden surprise of her impressive vocal ability; the tragic turn of events thus assaulting all the senses, inspiring tears from the emotionally moved audience. Ncuti Gatwa’s raw emotion in the later scenes particularly contributed to this sentiment; his performance was stunning. Furthermore, the Brecht-inspired use of multi-role enhanced the overall effect of the production; the entire company, as stated in the programme, “play everything from villagers to soldiers, evacuees to chickens”. The fact that said multi-role extended to both human and animal characters was especially effective, demonstrating how main protagonist Lily Tregenza valued her cat ‘Tips’ not as a mere pet, but as a best friend – often distracting from the continuous emotive theme of her missing her father. The concept of familial loss from the war acted as a foundation for the relationship between Lily (Katy Owen) and Barry (Adam Sopp) -a special companionship, bordering on naïve romance. The two actors portrayed this child-like innocence and genuine affection beautifully, Barry’s song regarding his ‘Lucky Button’ was particularly heart-warming, as the gift he extends to Lily (a mere button) acts as a momentous symbol of comradery and friendship, which she later poignantly hands to Madame Bounine.
Whilst this use of multi-role is emotionally potent, it also often elicited humour through gender bending (particularly Ewan Wardrop’s stellar performance as Mrs. Turner), whilst simultaneously emphasising the universality of the characters. For example, Katy Owen and Mike Shepherd as young and ‘Grandma’ Lily Tregenza utilized double-casting to clearly detach the past from the present, in story-like fashion. Mike Shepherd’s performance was particularly impressive, portraying the contrasting roles of eccentric ‘Grandma Tregenza’ and her endearingly stubborn Grandfather, who became a replacement father figure for Barry. Also, Shepherd’s achievements as Artistic Director of ‘KneeHigh’ are clearly unparalleled; the company is innovative and creatively relevant, the production is unlike one I’ve ever seen, and their global work for charity (specifically the homeless and refugees) is beyond admirable. I took two ‘lucky buttons’ for charity when I left, and paid double. I felt it was the least I owed after witnessing ‘946 The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips’ – not once, but twice. And I would be more than thrilled to witness it again.
Thank you, ‘Kneehigh’, for bringing one of my favourite childhood books to life, in a heart-rendering, spectacular explosion of theatre.