Monday, March 20, 2017

946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips

Kneehigh's stage adaptation of the 2006 children's novel The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo is so bubbly, energetic, and wacky that a few times during the performance, I was surprised by how suddenly I found myself choking up.

Told largely from the perspective of the feisty, funny, endearingly odd 12-year-old Lily (and, at the beginning and the end, her equally engaging elderly self), Adolphus Tips revolves around a search for the lost cat of the title. But since the setting is coastal England during World War II, and since the cat very quickly becomes a symbol for so many other kinds of absence--that of fathers and sons, of safe spaces, of food and supplies, of peace, and of a general sense of well-being--the production is ultimately a lot weightier than it can sometimes seem. Never heavy-handed or overwrought, Adolphus manages to tell a gentle, genuinely moving tale without cutting back on the clowning, drag, broad humor, folksy music, and energetic dance.

A memory play bookended by short scenes set in the present, Tips introduces a number of characters who don't always have much in common, save a desire to preserve as much normalcy as possible in an extraordinary time. Lily lives on a farm with her weary mother and cranky grandfather, who do their best to keep things running smoothly while dad--like most of the men in the area--is off fighting the Germans and Japanese. Lily's school has become impossibly crowded now that a group of evacuees from London have arrived, sending their French-refugee teacher into an anxious tizzy. Lily soon befriends a boy named Barry, who soon comes to live with her and her family. The fact that Barry is far away from his mother and mourning the recent combat-related death of his father doesn't stop him from teasing Lily mercilessly in the sort of latent, flirtatious dance long typical of pre-teens.

The arrival of hundreds of American troops to the area in 1943 disrupts what's left of normalcy--especially when Lily's town is evacuated so the Allies can simulate what will eventually become the Normandy Invasion, on the nearby stretch of beach. Still close enough to the front that they can visit regularly with Adi and Henry, two black American servicemen they've befriended, Lily and her family make do in their small, rundown cottage several miles inland. Lily keeps after Adi and Henry to find Tips, whom she was forced to leave behind during the evacuation. But again, the cat is hardly the point.

A warm exploration of the life-changing bonds that can form when people are thrown randomly together under sad, stressful, dangerous circumstances, 946 (named for the number of men who died when the Allied simulations were discovered and ambushed by German forces) emphasizes the importance of music, dance, humor, and trust in the very worst of times. A highly spirited and inventive production, 946 lifted me out of troubled times present without ever spilling into saccharine nostalgia for troubled times past.


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