Review: 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (Shakespeare's Globe)

Kneehigh’s fabulously footloose adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s WWII tale arrives at Shakespeare’s Globe

During World War Two, farming communities in Devon were displaced when American troops moved in to practice for the D-Day landings. One account of US soldiers who promised to help look for a little girl’s pet cat, left behind in the move, inspired Michael Morpurgo‘s children’s book The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips. He adapted it for the stage with Emma Rice and Kneehigh; she now brings the family-friendly show to London as part of her first season at the Globe.

Given the new name 946 – that being the number of soldiers killed in a botched practice landing off Devon’s coast in 1944, a tragedy of needless errors – the show is, despite this sombre story, largely a feel-good, all-ages tale told with Kneehigh’s customary agility and flair. The stage is set with sandbags and propellers, while a band swings on a platform above. Their jazzy, soulful numbers soundtrack most of the action, and prompt lively, jiving dance sequences as West Country folk forge bonds with jitterbugging Black American soldiers.

This unlikely meeting of cultures forms just one strand of a busy story, filled with evacuees, refugees, and a menagerie of animal puppets. But at its heart is Lily, a 12 year-old country girl who befriends a solider, Adolphus, who promises to help her find her lost beloved moggy Tips. The missing cat is symbolic, of course: a site for the swirling feelings around loss of loved ones; her father is serving oversees. This is familiar Morpurgo ground, even if 946 never plumbs the depths of hankie-grabbing heartache that War Horse so memorably did.

Katy Owen is astonishingly good as Lily, a grown-up actor who it’s hard to believe isn’t really a hem-twisting, knicker-flashing, spirited little girl. Lithe and nimble, fierce and funny, she rules the stage – no mean feat amidst an energetic cast of comic, cross-dressing, saucy, sweet and silly characters. Under Rice’s direction, the action is presented with wit and verve; actors bring to life roaring motorbikes, stuttering tractors, battle scenes and barn dances alike. That said, the attempt to recreate the mismanaged military exercise with plastic boats and tin baths proves ultimately more bathetic than effective.

And although 946 has a fabulously footloose, skipping energy, it’s a shame its story structure follows suit. Most of the narrative simply hops from minor event to minor event, and too much of it feels bitty and insubstantial. For all we warm to these characters, we often don’t get to know them sufficiently well before being asked to emotionally respond to their allotted sad backstory.

A contemporary framing device also seriously overcomplicates things, opening with a death that needs to be swiftly disregarded and several extraneous characters; it takes a good while for the story to hit its beats. When it does, there’s much to enjoy, and it has certainly found a good London home: the music and energy of the show glows on the Globe’s stage.

946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is at the Globe until 11 September.