When Yanks invaded before D-Day

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday December 14, 2016
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An American solider (Nandi Bhebhe) helps a little English<br>girl (Katy Owen) reunite with her beloved cat (operated by Bhebhe as well) in<br>Emma Rice's phantasmagorical <i>946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus<br>Tips</i> at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Steve Tanner
An American solider (Nandi Bhebhe) helps a little English
girl (Katy Owen) reunite with her beloved cat (operated by Bhebhe as well) in
Emma Rice's phantasmagorical 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus
at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Steve Tanner

Forget Santa Claus. You know good things are on their way when Emma Rice is coming to town. A Christmas tree would need only sprout in one scene during 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips and then you could call it a holiday show, except for the significant seasonal detail that D-Day happened in June. But Rice's latest extravaganza of theatrical imagination still feels like a gift dropped from a sleigh that circumvented the polar route on a direct flight from London.

Emma Rice has been bringing forth singular stage creations for the past two decades in the UK, mostly with Kneehigh Theatre, and is now visiting the Bay Area for the fourth time with Adolphus Tips. Previous Kneehigh productions seen here are the stage and cinema mash-up of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter, the blues-infused Brothers Grimm tale The Wild Bride, and a variation on Tristan & Yseult that managed to pull Yma Sumac, children's party balloons, and anarchic dancing into the tragic love story.

Rice doesn't rely on repeating stylistic maneuvers, and Adolphus Tips has yet another improbably peculiar and wonderful way to tell a story set in a sleepy village on the English Channel. World War II is already raging across the water, but things are mostly quiet in Slapton, where wives, children, and grandparents take on the chores of the deployed able-bodied menfolk. What happens next has enough dramatic fodder for a straightforward retelling, but Rice takes us on a topsy-turvy adventure that improbably starts out with a pet cat that has gone missing, and carries us through comedy, tragedy, neglected history, a bebopping Yank invasion, and as happy an ending as you can find at a time when the cards were stacked in death's favor.

Rice is the production's director and choreographer, and she co-adapted Michael Morpurgo's novel The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips with its author. Morpurgo also wrote War Horse, another novel about a beloved animal lost during a world war that debuted in 2007 at the National Theatre in London before moving to Broadway, then stopping in SF on tour. But they are very different stories, and the genius that pulled them from page to stage is equally high but fundamentally different as well.

An impressive sight created by set designer Lez Brotherston greets audiences as they enter Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, where a full-size front fuselage of a plane and propeller is engulfed in what could be both a hangar and a band shell. Along the front of the stage, rows of washbasins are being used by actors in coveralls to clean clothes, but these workaday props will become the waterline where the English Channel meets Slapton Sands, and where a tragic military error is played out in miniature but with frightful impact. The 946 that has been added to the original title of Morpurgo's novel is here explained, and while the circumstances are historically documented, they are sufficiently forgotten that their reveal should be saved for theatergoers.

Even though the approach of D-Day sets most of the action in 1944, the play is told in flashbacks and flash-forwards and even flash-sideways as a recent widow presents a visiting grandson with her childhood diary of the war years. "You can't have the end of a story before you have the beginning," she tells the gangly Boowie before unexpectedly jetting off to America. Then we get to know Grandma when she was Lily, the most engagingly obnoxious 12-year-old you're likely to meet.

Whenever Lily is onstage, which is most of the time, you don't want to take your eyes from her for a second lest you miss a beat from the cornucopia of little quirks and inflections that adult actor Katy Owen offers with the know-it-all disdain of an insecure adolescent. It's wonderful performance as Lily manages to grudgingly ingratiate herself to the suddenly widening population of her hometown.

First come children evacuated from London, snooty city folk as far as Lily is concerned, but as she shares a school desk with the tweedy Barry (the winsome Adam Sopp, who also plays Boowie), a prickly affection begins to develop. And then come the Yanks, who force the residents of Slapton to relocate inland so troops can practice the upcoming Normandy invasion on its shores. Lily befriends two soldiers, Adi (the charismatic Ncuti Gatwa) and the mostly silent Harry, who shock the insolated villagers by being black, and who are themselves shocked at the civility with which they are received.

Lily enlists Adi and Harry to help find her beloved pet cat Tips, who has gone missing during the relocation, and Nandi Bhebhe, who plays the quiet Harry, becomes impressively expressive operating the life-sized marionette of Tips. Presiding over the proceedings from a bandstand above the stage is the Blues Man, who may sing songs new and old often accompanied by actors who double as musicians. In the shiny suit of an urban hipster, the magnetic Uzoh Akpore also mixes up time as he tries to engage the dubious Lily with his stories. "Have you ever heard of a man called Bertolt Brecht?" queries the Blues Man of little Lily. He quotes Brecht as asking, "In the dark times, will there also be singing?"

Yes, and the whole audience will eventually join in, as Adolphus Tips works its way through the dark times toward its happy ending. In fact, it's a story that actually may have one too many happy endings, but save your complaints for your local Grinch.


946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips will run through Jan. 15 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets are $22.50-$97. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to berkeleyrep.org.