Even war has its blue-sky days. Opening with Brecht’s question — “In the dark times, will there also be singing?” — Kneehigh, the company behind Broadway’s “Brief Encounter,” respond with a resounding yes at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s the perfect home for a troupe that colludes with its audience at every turn, treating theater with a breath of fresh air. If homefront novel “The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips,” by “War Horse” author Michael Morpurgo, shows everyday life in extraordinary times, Kneehigh’s inimitable style of boisterous play brings life to death in this adaptation, called “946.” In the process, the production proves a tonic for our own troubled times.
Set in the sleepy Devonshire village of Slapton, a world away from the front line, Morpurgo’s story follows one family in a snapshot of homefront life. While the war rages elsewhere, Grandpa Tregenza (Mike Shepherd) and his daughter plough on in the fields, and 12-year-old Lily (Katy Owen) is as mischievous as ever, forever chasing after her pet cat Tips. Life, as they say, goes on.
And yet, everything changes. Even here, in deepest Devon, the war makes its presence felt. Fathers are absent and supplies are short. A trainload of evacuees arrive, then a garrison of US soldiers on training exercises, among them Adi (Ncuti Gatwa) and Harry (Nandi Bhebe). They provide the stage adaptation’s title: 946 died when a D-Day trial run was ambushed by German U-boats. One crossed wire — that’s all — left almost a thousand men dead.
Morpurgo shows that modern war makes the whole world a battleground, but Kneehigh push back with playful aplomb. With the upbeat jollity of an military variety show — there are drag turns and spoons routines — the whole thing insists that it takes more than a world war to bring the human spirit down. Adebayo Bolaji and his blues band burst into song, and American soldiers erupt into fizzing jives. Fluffy white clouds hang behind Les Brotherston’s sandbag fortress. Hershey bars are handed out. Young love still blossoms and friendships still form.
Not that Kneehigh — in this production directed by its former leader Emma Rice, now the artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe — neglect the somber side. The company twist domestic items and playthings into images of war. School desks become barricades, and toy boats in bathtubs become the English Channel on alert. It’s the fusion of the two that’s so powerful.
Yet lightness wins out every time, and this is a joyous night’s entertainment. Owen, such a brilliant Puck earlier this year at the Globe, brings the same boundless energy to Lily, playing with her pigtails and flailing her arms when she runs. It’s an acutely observed version of childhood — she rolls her ankles and clutches her skirt — but more than that, it’s a performance that sweeps an audience along.
In a show about keeping morale up, that’s absolutely key, and “946” pays tribute to a whole nation’s resilience, its role in the war effort. As it does so, it floats all sorts of ideas, from the cultural cross-pollination born out of alliances to the sheer vitality of the elderly. They were young once, but many of their peers weren’t so lucky. Even blue-sky days have their sadness.