It is hard not to have high expectations for 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips. Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s novel and based on a true story of military tragedy, 946 is a tale of love, loss and unlikely friendship. We’re in Slapton Sands, South Devon. It’s 1944 and local families are evacuated to allow the American army to practice for the Normandy landings. Katy Owen, fittingly self-absorbed as Lily Tregenza, is our feisty 12-year-old protagonist. She focuses on finding her cat Tips in order to block out the global destruction happening around her.
The show tries to reach for the topical thread of refugees. It spreads the message of accepting difference and welcoming newcomers, but the emotional scenes are never given enough time to settle before we’re thrown into a swing dance or unnecessary hand jive. Morpurgo’s story struggles on a big stage and attempts to address this by relying on humour that at times leans towards panto. Though the blues band led by Adebayo Bolaji get the audience singing along, they are more of a framing device than a fully integrated part of the production.
There are a few genuinely heart-warming moments: a school class plays recorders to their grieving teacher as she tries to carry on through the pain; a lucky button is passed around with love and glass bottles are handed out and blown on to make a tune. The notes played echo the live band, and the joy on the actor’s faces as the fear that it could easily go wrong disappears is delightful.
The action really picks up when GIs Adi (Ncuti Gatwa) and Harry (Nandi Bhebhe) tap dance their way into Lily’s life, the pair’s chemistry and jokes bouncing around the theatre. Though the focus is on Adolphus (Adi), it’s Harry who really shines. His story only truly takes shape at the end of the play but the stage imagery his character arc is given has elements of the spectacular.
It is clear director Emma Rice knows the components that make up a good-looking show. It just doesn’t feel like quite enough care has gone into making this production feel really unique. 946 relies too heavily on its theatrical techniques and not enough on story or feelings. It would also have been nice to see the opportunity seized to cast an older female actress, rather than hand the part of older Lily over to a man (Mike Shepherd).
In the programme, Morpurgo says how joyous the creative process was. He went down to live with the cast for a week to experiment with staging ideas. ‘I felt about twelve years old,’ he says. ‘It was wonderful.’ If only this level of joy transferred to the audience too.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is on at the Bristol Old Vic until 20th November 2016. Click here for more details.