By Yvette Huddleston
Having long been a fan of Kneehigh, I’ve come to expect great things of the theatre company – and they never disappoint – but their latest production, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse this week, is among their best yet.
Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, it tells the story of a little known wartime incident in which a rehearsal for the D-Day landings ended in disaster with the deaths of 946 Allied soldiers.
Around that central narrative the show packs in a whole lot more. The small Devon village in which the action takes place is home to local farmers, evacuees, Jewish refugees and American GIs far from home. It is about love, unity and inclusivity, so good to see represented on stage in a world which currently appears to be gravely lacking in both. Director (and co-adapter with Morpurgo) Emma Rice raises the bar on her own very high standards with an inventive, irreverent, imaginative mix of skilfull puppetry, anarchic physicality and, as always, superb music, with top-notch singing and musicianship from the multi-skilled ensemble cast. Katy Owen shines as 12-year-old Lily who is at the heart of the story – she’s feisty, obstinate and not always very nice – while the rest of the cast play multiple roles with grace and gusto. Rice understands that theatre is really all about ‘playing’ – with ideas, with audience expectations, with emotions, with words. And we are all invited to be part of the fun, yet there’s always an acknowledgement too of the darker aspects of life we all have to face. Here grief and loss, fear, prejudice and displacement are all explored.
Joyful and heart-breaking in equal measure.
West Yorkshire Playhouse, to November 5.