The Wallis in Beverly Hills has brought back Kneehigh, the English theatre company that presented Brief Encounter at the venue in 2014. The company also appeared locally in 2015 at South Coast Repertory with their take on Tristan & Yseult. Now they are back with 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, a mixed bag of an undertaking based on a children’s book by Michael Murpurgo. Murpurgo adapted his book to the stage along with director Emma Rice, adding 946 to his book’s title. The book dealt with a girl growing up on a farm on the west coast of England during World War II and her adventurous cat. To prepare for the Normandy Invasion to liberate Europe from the Nazis, the military forced the 3000 residents of Slapton to leave their homes for over a year. The rehearsal was a disaster that costs the lives of 946 American soldiers but did pave the way for the successful D-Day landings. Dubbed Operation Tiger, the disaster rehearsal was kept secret for 40 years.
Adding in their usual blend of music, dance, puppetry, cross-dressing and highly stylized acting–all done extremely well–Kneehigh misses the mark with this outing. The focus of the show is all over the place, opening in more modern times with the death of a husband and the liberation of his wife. Grandma leaves her grandson her wartime diary to read while she is off on an adventure. The flashback story deals with a 12 year old Lily (Katy Owen), a rambunctious child living with her mother (Kyla Goodey) on her grandfather’s (Mike Shepherd) farm while her father is off in the African desert fighting the Germans. Except for rationing, the family and town seem pretty untouched by the war and then evacuees arrive from London, including Barry (Adam Sopp) who develops a crush on Lily. Lily prefers the company of her cat, Tips (masterful puppetry by Nandi Bhebhe). The family and village befriend two Black American soldiers, Adi (Ncuti Gatwa) and Harry (Bhebhe). When the military wants the villagers to leave so they can practice landings on the beach, it is the schoolteacher, French Jewish refugee Madame Bounine (Emma Darlow), who makes an impassioned plea that wins them over. Tips goes missing during the move but the soldiers promise to find the cat behind the barbed wire practice range.
There is an intensely theatrical recreation of the military disaster using projectiles hurled from the audience and toy ships set ablaze in a multitude of water-filled tubs that front Lez Brotherston’s set design. Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design and Simon Baker’s sound design really enhance the experience. There is some lively, joyous dancing (choreography by Rice and Etta Murfitt) and the score ranges from “Leaving on a Jet Plane” to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” to “If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” Blues Man (Akopre Uzoh) is the main singer and fronts the constantly changing on stage band (many actors at times double as musicians). Pat Moran served as Music Director. But in spite of all the great technical elements, the show is “mishegas” to use an expression Madame Bounine would be familiar with or in her other language “idee folle.” Some of the audience really got into the theatrics but then a good portion of the audience did not return after the intermission.
Bram Goldsmith Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills. Ends. Mar. 5. thewallis.org or 310-746-4000.