"In the dark times, will there also be singing?" Bertolt Brecht once wrote in a poem. "Yes," he continued, "there will also be singing."
Beginning a play for families with a quote by Brecht is a pretty bold choice. So is creating a play for families that adheres to the tenets of Brechtian epic theater. Having a title that references both a calamitous D-Day training event and a young girl's lost cat is, too. But the British-based company Kneehigh, led by Emma Rice, is known for its bold theatrical choices, and 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips at St. Ann's Warehouse doesn't shy away from them — even if it doesn't add up to the same impact of some of its previous productions.
Written by Rice and Michael Morpurgo, 946 ostensibly opens in the "present," where a young man's grandfather dies of old age, and his grandmother announces her intention to go visit an old friend. "It's an adventure," grandma says. "And like all good adventures, I don't know what will happen or how it will end." She does provide one clue though: her old diary. "You can't have the end of a story until you've had the beginning."
Suddenly, we've flashed to 1944. Twelve-year-old Lily Tregenza (Katy Owen) lives with her grandmother (Kyla Goodey) and granddad (Mike Shepherd) in the small seaside town of Slapton, England. Lily's father is off in the war, presumed missing. Without many friends in which to confide, Lily relys on her favorite companion, her beloved and wily tabby cat, Tips for company. Slowly, the town becomes overrun with evacuees from other cities. American soldiers start arriving, too. Before she knows it, Lily and her family are forced to evacuate as preparations for the Normandy invasion begin. But Tips has gone missing, and Lily puts the onus to find Tips on two of her new African-American soldier pals who are staying in town, Adi (Ncuti Gatwa) and Harry (Nandi Bhebhe).
Inspired by Morpurgo's 2005 children's story, the piece is set against the framework of Operation Tiger, a trial run for D-day that took place off the Devon coast and was supposed to simulate the landing at Normandy. Through a series of disastrous mistakes (like the whole exercise being kept a secret, even from the people participating), 946 lives were lost. In Kneehigh's typical fashion, they present this event in a beautifully inventive theatrical manner. A series of troughs at the lip of the stage shoot water high into the air. Actors scattered throughout the audience toss what look like balls of flames onto the stage. Malcom Rippeth's lighting flares brightly as the sounds of explosions (by Simon Baker) ring throughout the theater.
Admittedly, this might startle young audience members, but overall, 946 is otherwise pretty safe, in several different aspects. With its wartime focal point and the use of lifelike puppetry, the production has a tendency to feel reminiscent of Morpurgo's biggest hit to date, War Horse, and its stage adaptation. Though Kneehigh was uninvolved with that production, 946 uses several similar storytelling techniques, namely bringing animals to the stage using human-operated puppets that often have more personality than they otherwise would (Lyndie Wright and Sarah Wright are the credited designers).
With that in mind, 946 feels slightly less original than it should, and the more intriguing story (Operation Tiger) is really crying out to be the focus as opposed to the backdrop. But we have to hand it to director Rice and her team, including scenic and costume designer Lez Brotherston, who've managed to create a version of Brechtian alienation that children will understand, even if it doesn't pan out all the way.
In Rice's hands, the incredibly game cast (led by the highly watchable Owen) breaks the fourth wall, cross-dresses in costumes from different era, and, yes, even sings through the dark times (Akopre Uzoh leads a fabulous onstage band). At one point there's even a jump rope match between Hitler and Churchill, where we're encouraged to cheer for one and boo for the other.
Ultimately, though, 946 doesn't commit to the Brechtian devises set forth at the top of the show. Instead, in the end, they shoot straight for the heart to land an emotional response as opposed to a thought-provoking one. But when your central character is a furry feline, its obvious why Brecht has to take a back seat.