946 refers to the number of allied soldiers killed after communication errors left them vulnerable to an unexpected German E-Boat attack. Emma Rice and Michael Morpurgo’s adaptation of the latter’s novel, instead, rings home to modern themes of displacement, the refugee crisis and loss with a tender touch.
We revisit the life of Lily Tregenza, who spends the latter parts of World War II searching for her cat, Tips, and gradually falling in love with the evacuee, Barry. Taught by French Jew, Madame Bounine, and intermixed with other refugees in their class, this is a tale of fragmented communities coming together with the common goal of defeating Hitler, and uniting the world.
It is with a deep sadness, though, that we were reminded by Mike Shepherd at the end of the show that this simply is not the case. This deeply political nature emerged from 946, but not overbearingly so. This could be an intense historical critique of governmental refugee policy which emphasises how little has changed when it comes down to it, or alternatively as a fantastically bright family show.
This vibrant visual is upon us from the off: clever puppetry quickly blends into a boxing match between Hitler and Churchill which is synonymous with the extravagant nature of Emma Rice’s work with Kneehigh. Her strong choreography really comes into its own once American GI’s Adi (Ncuti Gatwa) and Harry (Nandi Bhebhe) arrive at the coastal town, taking influence from lindy-hop and jive. Their performances brought a dynamic energy to the play and a wicked sense of humour.
Katy Owen created a wonderful character as Lily Tregenza, but to ignore the strength of this multi-rolling actor-musician ensemble would be wrong. They slipped effortlessly between musician and character, and created some really strong humorous moments.
An eclectic mix of acting, music and dance creates a real feel-good factor but, at times, goes amiss. The first half is particularly guilty of this, with an overlong opening puppetry sequence. Equally, the role of the Blues Man feels odd: he will often leave his place overseeing the band and mingle on the stage, but never to any great consequence.
The second act solves the problems of the first: we open with some epic storytelling led by Adebayo Bolaji’s Blues Man which recounts the disaster of Operation Tiger, before it is played before us again and Harry is killed. Bhebhe has a beautiful song at this point, capturing the emotions of all of those in the play who have suffered yet another loss. Lily’s grandfather tells Barry that ‘we are all refugees now’, in the poignant reminder that amongst all the glitz, glamour and outright silliness that makes this play such an appeal for families, the things we learnt from World War II should not be so swiftly forgotten, and perhaps we should consider their applications in the 21st Century.