Ncuti Gatwa and Nandi Bhebhe in 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, directed by Emma Rice, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
Ncuti Gatwa and Nandi Bhebhe in 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, directed by Emma Rice, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
(© Steve Tanner)

Nothing puts a crimp in one's budding adolescence quite like bombs and forced relocation, to say nothing of a beloved pet that is maddeningly prone to wandering off. Fortunately, nobody is so ably equipped to tackle a unique tale of love, war, and abandonment quite like England's Kneehigh Theatre Company.

Kneehigh's 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (produced in association with Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre) recounts this very story with a delightfully sideways view and all sorts of visual delights. Directed by Emma Rice and adapted by Rice and Michael Morpurgo, from Morpurgo's children's story, the play at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (the show moves to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, this March) is a crazy patchwork of music, dance, puppetry, and technical magic. At its heart is the feisty and highly watchable actress Katy Owen, who plays 12-year-old spitfire Lily Tragenza.

When we first encounter Lily, she is searching for her missing cat, Tips, who has wandered off. Akopre Uzoh, the Blues Man who fronts 946's five-person onstage band, asks if Lily would care to hear a song. Nothing doing, returns Lily. If I had wanted a song, I would have asked for a song," she snaps. "I don't even like songs." But she gets one anyway. Life goes that way sometimes.

Her edginess is justifiable. It's 1944, and from her seaside town in England, Lily watches as evacuees pour into her school and sees her town is overrun by soldiers, some of whom are "black as blackbirds." Lily's father went missing at the Battle of Dunkirk shortly after he drowned Tips' kittens, leaving her mum (Kyla Goodey) and granddad (Mike Shepherd) to hold the family together.

Since her wartime coming-of-age tale is told in flashback, we know that our Lily will figure things out, and the audience will come to understand why the motorcycle-gunning Grandma Lily entrusts her diary to her grandson Boowie (Adam Sopp) with the advice to "go find a horizon."

Bombs or no bombs, this growing-up business is no easy road. Mum and Grandad rarely have time for Lily. Her teacher Madame Bounine (Emma Darlow) is frequently on her case. New classmate Barry (Sopp), an evacuee, is a needy new friend and easy bullying target, who also wants a kiss. Tips, when she's around, proves the best comfort of all. Adolphus and Harry (Ncuti Gatwa and Nandi Bhebhe), the two African-American servicemen stationed in the region, take to Lily immediately. They like her pigtails and her spunk, and the soldiers end up bonding not just with Lily, but with several other members of her village as well.

As period-based as 946 is, director Rice's storytelling techniques are anything but stodgy. Toys and puppets (designed by Lyndie Wright and Sarah Wright) play a major role in this endeavor, with the wide-eyed and nimble Tips (controlled by Bhebe) emerging as very much its own character. The flight-suit wearing ensemble sweeps the stage or breaks into a jitterbug with equal finesse. Rice's orchestration of climactic ocean battle is accomplished via toy boats laid across a series of 30 washtubs (with able assists from lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth and sound designer Simon Baker). The centerpiece of Lez Brotherston's set is a working airplane propeller fronting a fanned out and fractured mirror depicting a clear blue sky.

The band (in contemporary dress) is perched on top of the plane, and cast members periodically make their way up to accompany them. Music director Pat Moran laces the score with Barker's original tunes and the occasional contemporary or rock standard thrown in for good measure. You will not hear a slower and more honeyed version of Peter Paul and Mary's "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" than the one delivered by Uzoh and his players.

946 weaves between its weighty and playful tones without making the audience feel the speedbumps. When Lily daydreams a battle to the death between Hitler and Winston Churchill involving ladies underwear and jump roping, her vision is both adolescently appropriate and also a welcome bit of farcical release. Rice and Morpurgo (who wrote War Horse) gently bring distrust of the other into the mix, and the words of Maya Angelou, Bertolt Brecht, and Martin Luther King Jr. come in anachronistically, but without a heavy hand.

Rice's multitasking ensemble are working their respective guts out, but when all is said and done, it's Owen who keeps us invested. She dashes and leaps across Brotherston's stage as if propelled by a motor, vaulting over desks, twisting the hem of her dress in her hands, and strategically flashing her knickers when she feels like giving somebody a jolt. Her rubbery face contorting into a host of expressions, but she keeps her smiles for rare occasions. In her hands, Owen makes Lily a real piece of work. Someone needs to give this kid a cat that will stay put. She needs one.

Then again, if Lily were calm, Adolphus Tips would be far less engaging. Given the magic of what Kneehigh has put onstage, we'll gladly take the mayhem.