The extravagantly titled 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, is a conventional tale of wartime Britain, made extraordinary by an unusual approach. Stripped-back staging and exaggerated performances create a heightened reality, and pervasive humour means that when tragedy inevitably strikes, it’s blindsiding.
Based on real-life events – and a novel by Michael Morpurgo – an emotional war drama with animal puppets will invite comparison with War Horse, but 946 is a different beast. It features a burly man playing a grandmother, marionettes and a soul-funk band; from the outset it defies easy categorisation.
There’s something of a Gang Show atmosphere. The band performs popular songs with only tangential relevance to the plot – Leaving on a Jet Plane, Born to be Wild, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free – and there’s even an audience sing-a-long with Swing Low Sweet Chariot. The production is aware of its weaknesses and plays on them: when a “tractor”, constructed from a 44 gallon drum, sputters into life, the fact it’s clearly being shaken by the surrounding actors, who also provide the noises, is funny and endearing.
It may take some time for the audience to catch on to what is happening, but from the very beginning, director Emma Rice plays a meticulously planned game of misdirection. This is a home front where the dangers of war are hidden by dancing, congenial characters, and sometimes straight-up caricature. And although there are familiar elements – the idyllic country village, evacuee children from the big city, a father fighting overseas – it still manages to feel fresh and engaging.
The actors are fantastic, with many playing multiple roles (and instruments), but while Nandi Bhebhe excels as the thoughtful American soldier Harry (and puppeteer for Tips the cat), and Emma Darlow lends depth to the refugee school teacher Madame Bounine, Katy Owen steals every scene as the 12-year-old holy terror Lily Tregenza. Earlier this year, Owen played Puck in the Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that impish spirit has carried over to her portrayal of the school girl who’s at once a St Trinian’s pastiche and a fully realised person. An utterly refreshing family drama.