Considering the scale of the mortalities…nine hundred and forty-six…this is such a hugely exuberant show; full of life, vitality and crazy ideas that come off brilliantly.
For example; as the audience enters, the apron stage is crammed with shiny tin baths filled with tap water. Some of the cast are washing their woolly smalls … but surely there must be a greater purpose.
The tragedy of Slapton Sands, and the impact it all had on the Devonshire folk, is now one of the least secret of World War Two secrets. Operation Tiger was supposed to be an American rehearsal for the D Day landings but it’s integrity was botched by top brass and the Germans turned up in force. What Michael Morpurgo did was put a child and her cat at the heart of the story and told it from a local perspective. The West Country Theatre Company, Kneehigh, alighted on his book … and are having a ball with it all.
Using a wonderful array of actors, a collection of puppets of various scales and a full blown swing and soft shoe shuffle band, the company fling the story at us in an unrestricted flow of shenanigans … which the largely teenage audience enthusiastically lapped up.
The themes are all familiar from other accounts of the period. 12-year-old Lily misses her dad; no one has time for her except her cat, Tips. Clueless evacuees arrive…including Barry who has already lost his father. Needless to say, City boy falls for country girl. Their teacher is an escaping French Jew who rides her bike with her bloomers showing. We must all dig for victory. It’ll all be over by Christmas. Lucky buttons. So it’s the way the show unfolds that matters.
The kaleidoscope of puppetry, jokery and emotion is deceptively clever. The farm animals get bigger as we step into the story. The cat is large to help make Lily look cuter.
A toy jeep scoots into the village and two action hero dolls became Adi and Harry; jitterbugging black GIs, storming into the villagers’ lives. “We’ve come here to win the war”, they pronounce. “But we’re winning it already” comes the repost.
But amidst the bravado, the show has deep sentiment too. When the village is requisitioned for manoeuvres, Lily’s cat is on the wrong side of the razor wire and the kindly negroes promise to find it. A toy parachute drops from the sky and a human German is captured; but hatred is mollified by the fact he is barely a boy…a father’s son….which prompts everyone to poignantly produce sepia photos of their own kith and kin.
The massacre at sea is another ingenious blending of live action and toys. Model boats are floated into the tin baths (so that’s what they are for) and the scene is bombarded with rolls of red ribbons. Add a sound track – and you have the horror of war.
It’s a high energy ensemble piece – but Katy Owen is superb (yet again) as little Lily; cavorting around the stage being bodily funny and cheeky as hell. The young audience just loved her. Ewan Wardrop is hilariously pliable in a number of chaotic cameos; as the horse-riding Squire (though the horse is entirely in our imaginations) and as Barry’s blousy mother…who is having similar problems with her frock. And Emma Darlow steps endearingly out of stereotype as the forlorn French teacher.
The incident at Slapton Sands 70 years ago was a bad gamble that went horribly wrong. This show about the consequences – large and small – is an adventurous gamble that goes wonderfully right. You won’t be disappointed.