I have a heart like butter, easily melted. Show me some toe tapping, good-clean-natured lindy hopping, a sweet smattering of puppetry, a little girl and a lost cat, and I’m a puddle in my theatre seat, bopping my way through the run time. Critical faculties be damned, show me a production that’s full throated and big hearted in its quest to bring us joy, and I’m on board. Hell, I’m driving the bus, cruising happily towards the Deus Ex Machina with glee. 946 then, is the kind of show that’s catnip to my buttery sensibilities.
And ‘show’ really is the only word one can use to describe the bombastic intentions of this production. Kneehigh take a story thick with tragedy: children without fathers, drowned kittens, 946 bright-eyed, clean shaven Allied soldiers ruthlessly killed during to a training accident; and tell it with a longsighted, misty gaze. They tell it with sass, style, and jazz hands. An exercise that saw cultures clash, whole towns turned upside down and almost a thousand tragic deaths is steeped in warm nostalgia, as Lily Tregenze’s diary is unearthed with a remembered blast of ‘40s swing music. The audience are subsumed in the kind of old-timey picture painted by grandmothers and grandfathers who insisted that Things Were Better Then, who saw every heartache and horror as a story to be told or wholesome lesson to be learnt.
At the beginning of the play, the satin-clad Blues Man (an astonishingly groovy Adebayo Bolaji) asks our heroine if she’s ever heard of Bertolt Brecht. Mr Brecht asked: During the dark times, will there be dancing? 946 concludes that yes, oh yes there will be dancing. However, the unbridled optimism of the play has less in common with Brecht than with the sometimes saccharine sentimentality of Warhorse, and not least because it’s a Michael Morpugo story about a child and it’s animal companion set against a World War II background, with puppets. Despite choosing the body count of the dead soldiers as its title, 946 has none of the defiant rage of Brecht’s operas. Particularly in the bright first half, the musical interludes, rather than serving as a counterpoint to darkness, only reiterate the light, often repeating strains of dialogue and drive home the messages of family, loneliness and love which are already bursting from the seams of this production.
Kneehigh leave engaging in the weightier subject matter until quite late in the second half of the play, when the sun was already low and The Globe illuminated by the warm glow of the stage lights. The deaths of the soldiers, realised with achingly fragile toy ships and smoke and fire and water, is a real departure from the cheerful first half and even proved too much from some of the younger patrons. The soulful music mourns them and the Brechtian outrage promised in those opening lines instead is eclipsed by baleful sorrow.
By the time the bus pulls in at the happy-ever-after station, it’s clear that 946 is a charming, beautifully staged telling of this tale. Performances, design and soundtrack are all effortlessly energetic and intent to entertain. The puppetry, though not comparable to the behemoth of human innovation that was Warhorse, is playful and fluidly performed. Even burdened with an uneven tone, a tendency towards cotton sentimentality and a syrupy finale, 946 is a joyous jaunt down memory lane that prompted gooseflesh before the final curtain call.
Spread me on a slice of toast, I’m done.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips plays until 11th September. Click here for more information.