lily and Tips

Katy Owen as Lily with the star of the show, cat, Tips. Picture: Steve Tanner

946 The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips

Birmingham Rep

*****

EVERY so often along comes a production that not only ticks all the boxes but chucks in a few new ones and ticks those as well.

The result is a children’s book adapted into a piece of magical theatre for all ages. It is never too cerebrally dramatic or wordy, nor made patronisingly simple for children, nor is it too babyish for adults; this is Everyman theatre.

Director Emma Rice, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe and author Michael Morpurgo, have turned Morpurgo’s children’s book into musical theatre with Cornwall company Kneehigh.

It is set around the infamous Operation Tiger in April 1944 when a combination of bad planning, bad decisions, bad co-ordination and bad communications saw 946 US servicemen killed in a rehearsal for D-Day – many by friendly fire.

The play is set in Slapton Sands, in Devon, on the farm where Lily Tregenza lives with her mum and grandfather; her father is away fighting in the desert. Into that bucolic haven we have thrust the war’s refugees; a Jewish French teacher who fled to England from Normandy to evade the Nazis; her Jewish husband has joined the Merchant Navy where he was to die, torpedoed in an Atlantic convoy.

We have Barry, an evacuee from London escaping the blitz, where his mum still drives a bus. His father died at Dunkirk. Then come the GIs, in the form of two black soldiers, Adolpus and Harry who had the double novelty of first being American and then black, both as common as Martians in wartime Devon.

Little is made of racial conflict, which was far worse in the US forces than in the civilian population, except when the pair turn up at the farm for Thanksgiving, a time for families, laden with base PX store goodies stating the Tregenzas are the only people to treat them like family  

Then the Tregenzas and the entire village, 3,000 people, are forced to move so Slapton Sands can become a rehearsal site for D-day. Suddenly everyone is a refugee, a adolphus and harrymigrant of war forced from their homes, giving, if nothing else, pause for thought at what is happing, albeit on a hugely larger scale, in the modern world.

And all the while there is Tips, Lily’s adored cat whose independence means she is missing much of the time and when everyone leaves the farm and village to become a battleground behind barbed wire, Tips stays, creating a bond between Lily, Aldolphus and Harry.

Ncuti Gatwa as Adolphus and Nandi Bhebhe as Harry

The play starts, with a hit of things to come, with a slow and easy version of John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane from the Blues man, the excellent Adebayo Bolaji and the brilliant band. The band being a moveable feast as most characters ended up playing an instrument at some point and we even had a recorder ensemble and a beer bottle band.

Musical director and multi-instrumentalist Pat Moran did stand out though playing an orchestra’s worth of instruments all on his own along with musician Seamas Carey.

Grandad, living on memories, is dying and when he goes, his widow, Lily, now of mature years, sets off on an adventure leaving grandson Boowie to read her diary – which takes us back to the war years.

Booie, played by Adam Sopp becomes evacuee Barry, while Grandma, played by Mike Shepherd, becomes the young Lily’s grandfather which would really have left Oedipus confused, while Lily’s mum is played with homely charm by Kyla Goodey.

Doubling up is all par for the course though with Chris Jared expiring as Grandad only to find a new lease of a past life as the Vicar and Lily’s dad.

Then Ewan Wardrop is very funny as the upper-class twit Lord Something-or-other, who seems to have borrowed a horse from Spamalot, and reappears as Barry’s blousy, OTT mum.

Katy Owen is wonderful as Lily, a bolshie, angry, 12-year-old who speaks her mind, often with a knee in the groin for emphasis. She manages some glorious facial expressions and physical comedy in a stand-out performance.

Emma Darlow gives us a serious and sad ‘Bloomers’, Madame Bounine, and you feel for her as she tells her story as you do for Ncuti Gatwa, convincing as Adolphus, Adi, as he recounts the loss of his friend.

Nandi Bhebhe does not say a lot as Harry but has a lovely voice and is also responsible for the star of the show, Tips the cat, one of many puppets and models utilised for a flock of sheep to a rather cute sheepdog, a stringed and rodded cast all directed by Sarah Wright.

It all takes part on a glorious set from Lez Brotherston, Matthew Bourne’s go-to designer. It gives us a wartime look with a huge propeller fronting a second, raised level for the band in what looks like a hangar at the rear but an open space at the front, which doubles as fields, farm, school and sitting room. It is a simple design which seems much busier and complex than it actually is.

One clever touch is a collection of tin baths at the front of the stage. I have always said that the greatest special effect is imagination and using model landing craft and destroyers, along with German E-boats in the tin baths, with bangs and flashing lights, a few splashes and flames gives the mind all the props it needs to create its own scenes of the horrors of battle.

In fact the who production feeds the imagination with suggestions of scenery and props, a Triumph Bonneville limited to a headlamp and handlebars, for example, and there is nothing wrong with that. The mind needs exercise just like everything else.

It is a wonderful piece of theatre which works on all levels. Two small children, near me, sat enthralled from beginning to end and their smiles and eyes wide with wonder at the end said more than I ever could. If this was their first venture into grown up theatre it was a magic they would always remember. Adolphus Tips had told its tale and captured them for life. To 15-10-16

Roger Clarke

10-11-16

Operation Tiger 

Index page Rep Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre