Tickety boo! Kneehigh, Berkeley Rep jazz up history in Adolphus Tips

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Adi (Ncuti Gatwa, left) and Harry (Nandi Bhebhe) in 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, a Kneehigh production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Katy Owen as Lily, with her cat. Photos by Steve Tanner

Spirits are high at Berkeley Repertory Theatre this holiday season. What’s interesting is that the merry-making on stage in 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips – the singing, dancing and general revelry – is all in service to a story about war and a little-known and avoidable tragedy that cost nearly 1,000 during World War II. So it’s happy about sad, which makes sense given the theater company at work here is Kneehigh, the Cornwall-based troupe that has made various Bay Area splashes at American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Rep (The Wild Bride, Tristan & Yseult). Their work is marked by a certain exuberance that combines song, dance and storytelling with a powerful sense of true experience. From our limited perspective here (we haven’t seen, unfortunately, all their productions) The Wild Bride remains the benchmark toward which all their productions must aspire (read my review here), and though the new show has “amazing” in its title, the work, as enjoyable as it is, doesn’t quite get there.

Like the other Kneehigh shows we have been lucky enough to see, Adolphus Tips is directed by Emma Rice, who is currently the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London (she’s actually leaving in the spring of 2018 after only two years – that’s a whole other story). Rice is one of those directors whose vision and energy and good taste in actors, designers and music makes you want to experience everything she does, and if this ride isn’t as wild as her Bride, it still has an awful lot to recommend it.

As ever, the presentation is simple and straightforward. The set, a giant starburst bandshell (by Lez Brotherston, who also designed costumes) sits at the center of the Roda stage surrounded by sandbags (there’s a war going on) and a central playing area that is primarily the farmhouse where 12-year-old Lily lives with her mum, grandpa and ever-disappearing cat named Tips. Lily’s dad is off fighting the war, and the arriving American troops are going to evacuate everyone from Lily’s town, Slapton Sands, so they can rehearse their water landings in preparation for D-Day.

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Because the story is told from Lily’s point of view (via the diaries a grown-up Lily gives to her grandson), we only get a slice of all this, but it’s an intriguing slice, especially with the arrival of two African-American GIs who befriend Lily and her family.

This story, adapted by Rice and Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) from Morpurgo’s novel, isn’t’ so much about the loss of life that shouldn’t have happened but more about how war is seen through the eyes of a child. In this case, that’s Lily, played with rambunctious glee by Katy Owen, and she mostly cares about her cat, represented by a puppet, although one not nearly as appealing or as carefully manipulated as the puppet of the dog who herds sheep on the farm (Sarah Wright is credited as the puppet director). Lily spends much of the play’s 2 1/2 hours shouting for Tips, but she does get mightily distracted by Barry (Adam Sopp an evacuee from the London blitz who ends up in Lily’s class, which happens to be taught by a lovely Jewish refugee from France (Emma Darlow as Madame Bounine).

Boys and cats rule Lily’s world, and then she meets Adolphus (Ncuti Gatwa), whom his friends call Adi, and soft-spoken Harry (Nandi Bhebhe). Their exuberant entrance, full of irresistible swing dancing and high kicks, all but ensures that they will be adored by all who know them. How their fates intertwine with Slapton and Lily makes up the bulk of the show, which bounces from the present to the past and back to the present, all accompanied by a band that continually adds or subtracts members depending on which actors aren’t involved in a scene.

This may be a play, but it’s a play with an awful lot of music. Some of it is original (by Stu Barker) and some we’ve heard before (“Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Born to Be Wild”), and it’s all highly enjoyable. There’s even a sing-along “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at the top of Act 2 that is a lot more fun than it sounds (as is the dance-along at show’s end). Why is there a band and a blues singer (Akpore Uzoh) presiding over this war story full of puppets (sheep! chickens! a boy playing with a soccer ball!), adults playing children and small-town life mashed up with large-scale tragedy? Because this is a Kneehigh show, and a band adds bounce and humor and fire and, on occasion, a tender moment.

Rice directs with her customary brilliance and attention to detail, and her ensemble is as endearing as it is energetic. A standout for me is Ewan Wardrop pulling double duty (they all do) as Lord Something-or-Other, whose horse riding skills have to be seen to be believed and as Mrs. Turner, Barry’s enthusiastic mum up for a visit from London. Gatwa and Bhebhe shine as Adi and Harry, and Mike Shepherd as a motorcycle-riding granny is priceless.

If all the pieces don’t add up to something moving, if all the skittering and scattering obscure a story that lacks depth, there’s still an awful lot of good stuff here. War may be hell, but as seen through the Kneehigh prism, it’s full of sweet fun, fun for all ages.

Michael Morpurgo and Emma Rice’s 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips continues through Jan. 15 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Hot to trot: Can War Horse survive the hype?

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Andrew Veenstra rides Joey, an extraordinary puppet creation operated by John Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger in the national touring production of War Horse at the Curran Theatre. BELOW: Grayson DeJesus (left) sits astride Topthorn while Michael Wyatt Cox rides Joey into a World War I battle. Photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

As a showcase for mind-blowing stagecraft, you will not find a better example than War Horse, the National Theatre of Great Britain hit that is trampling audience’s tear ducts around the world. Everything you’ve heard about the life-size horse puppets from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company is true – there isn’t a more powerful fusion of design, movement and emotion on a stage anywhere. The horses – and especially the puppeteers who bring them to life – balance the weight of imagination and reality with such skill that the pretend beasts are the most vital beings on stage (not to slight the capable human cast, but the horses win by more than a nose).

Now at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season, War Horse arrives with a staggering amount of hype. The show won every major award for its original London production and captured five Tony Awards for its Broadway incarnation (both productions, by the way, are still packing them in). Steven Spielberg was so impressed by the show he put a movie version of Michael Morpurgo’s original young adult novel on the fast track (the film was released last December and received mixed reviews).

And now War Horse is finding its way around the world. Is the show everything we’ve been led to expect? The answer is yes. And no.

This production, originally directed by Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott and for the tour by Bijan Sheibani, is a massive machine, impressive for its choreography not only of the horses but also of the entire company as it creates everything from a tense stand-off in an unplowed field to no man’s land in the trenches of World War I France. A giant video screen stretches across the top of the stage and, using the style of pencil sketches in a sketchbook brought to life by computer animation (the work of 59 Productions), helps convey details of the setting and set the time frame (from 1912 to war’s end in 1918). Nearly constant stage smoke helps intensify and dramatize the complex lighting design by Paule Constable (adapted by Karen Spahn), which makes the battle scenes feel like a cross between a Who concert and Disney theme park spectacle.

In fact, though War Horse is a play (with period songs and a pre-recorded, movie-like score by Adrian Sutton), it feels a whole lot like a musical, but in place of show-stopping song-and-dance numbers, you have show-stopping horses.

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There’s a lot of flash in this 2 1/2-hour production, a lot of theatrical muscle. But all of that is in service to a story that feels much smaller than the production itself. Not unlike Disney’s stage version of The Lion King which suffers from a similar problem and uses puppetry (among other theatrical tricks) to help overcome this discrepancy.

It’s not that the story of a boy, Albert (Andrew Veenstra) and his beloved horse, Joey, isn’t involving or touching – it is, and just about anybody is liable to get choked up or even shed a few tears as this bonded couple is separated by war. The horrors of war are front and center but not in a terribly graphic or shattering way, and in Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Morpurgo’s book (in association with the folks at Handspring), there’s a distinct lack of complexity in the relationships or the plot. In fact, it’s safe to say when the horses aren’t on stage, the show loses momentum in spite of the production’s hardworking machinery.

But the horses are on stage a lot, and they are beyond magnificent. Joey’s entrance – when the story moves ahead in time and turns him from a foal into a stallion – is dazzling. There are many such moments in the show, including a battle between Joey and a black stallion named Topthorn and a harrowing scene involving horses and barbed wire. And the bond between Albert and Joey is palpable and deep, a connecting point for anyone who has ever bonded with an animal large or small. It’s nice to see that kind of relationship portrayed with such integrity on a stage.

At the end of the ride, War Horse may not be a profound play, but there’s no denying it is pure, thrilling theatrical magic.

[bonus interviews]

I chatted with the creative minds behind War Horse for several features in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Read all about Handspring Puppet Company here.
Read all about author Michael Morpurgo and co-director Tom Morris here.


War Horse continues through Sept. 9 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $31-$100. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.