On the audio recording of his book The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, the tone of Michael Morpurgo’s reading voice is unmistakable. In recounting the story of a death in the family followed by a girl’s coming of age, he summons up a wartime Britain similar to that of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement. Both books play with narrative structure and the unreliability of memory. They’re elegies for bygone eras and the people who lived and died during them.
With 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, Berkeley Rep has once again partnered with Emma Rice, currently the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. (However, she has resigned from the position and her tenure there will end in 2018.) Her direction of Morpurgo’s story — Rice and the author are jointly credited with the adaptation — discards any sense of solemnity altogether. Instead of a straightforward play that’s leaden with nostalgia, she amps up the action to such an extent that it comes to resemble a cross between a Monty Python skit and a British pantomime, or wherever the Venn diagram between the two converges in the pallid realm of stale and wilted farce.
Rice’s repertoire of theatrical tricks includes, but is not limited to, musical ditties and asides, lighting enough for a rock and roll opera, the use of puppetry as meta-commentary, cross-dressing for the sake of itself and illogical, frenetic transitions from scene to restless scene. Sincerity, for Rice, only exists in the territory of prudes and dullards. If you need to confirm that fact, you need only look to the central actress, Katy Owen as Lily. Not only has she been dressed as Rhoda Penmark from The Bad Seed, pigtails included, but she’s also been instructed to behave like that monstrous imp.
If you haven’t seen that camp thriller from 1956, watch it first to see if you’d enjoy reacting to a character whose menacing glare dominates the stage for nearly three hours. 946 is bookended in the present with Lily’s grandson Bowie (Adam Sopp) reading the diary she kept during World War II. But the bulk of the drama concentrates on Lily’s wartime stories as they are frantically brought to life. Additionally, there’s a live band playing center stage on top of the action happening below. Several of the musicians doubled as actors, descending a skeletal ladder to enter in and exit from the proceedings.
Right before the lights dimmed and 946 officially began, they were playing the 1966 John Denver oldie “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” The lead singer Akpore Uzoh, aka the character Blues Man, has a sweet, soft voice that didn’t oversell the material. While the music’s main function was to provide a pleasant sedative, it was just as likely to intrude and distract from any forward momentum the story attempted to make. 946 wasn’t a drama, a musical, or a satire: it was all of the above and more. You could almost picture the behind-the-scenes conversations during rehearsals about “bored audiences in need of overstimulation.”
Before taking the stage, several of the cast members were dressed in beige janitorial jumpsuits. With brooms in hand, they interacted with the audience. Within the first few minutes of the play, there was a heavy-handed Brechtian reference to breaking the fourth wall that landed with a thud. It felt forced and condescending, like they’d just handed out a pamphlet titled How to Engage the Theatre-Going Audience 101. It was one more element that communicated an emphatic message: the director’s inability to trust the raw material of a small story told well.
In a way, none of this would have mattered if not for the last fifteen minutes of the play. The play, or whatever hybrid it is, might have been acceptable as a dizzy comic romp. But after all the forced whimsy, the audience was suddenly directed away from the sour humour that’s peculiar to the English, and toward a genuine mourning for the loss of a character. During those final scenes, it was the expressive lighting that was the star of the show not the emotional lives of the characters. If the director wanted to shake the public up with rude noises and flash, then mission accomplished. What didn’t cohere was a believable narrative or the emotional lives of the characters. The motto for this production must have read: More is more is more.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, through Jan. 15, at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org.