Adults playing children – insufferable, right? Unless it’s 30-something Katy Owen channeling 12-year-old British brat Lily Tregenza, through whose semi-innocent eyes we witness a warm-up to the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Lily lives with her mother and grandfather (Father is off “in the desert fighting the Nazis,” she brags) on a family farm in the quiet seaside town of Slapton, selected as the ideal topography in which to rehearse the assault on Omaha Beach. It’s a pivotal year for Lily, and we relive it within the framework of a diary that the elderly Lily presses into her grandson’s hands as she takes off on a late-life adventure via vintage motorcycle. The bridge between the two time frames is effected by means of puppets, but don’t worry, they’re small, cute and transient – except for Tips, young Lily’s elusive, attitudinous cat, who goes missing when the farm is commandeered for maneuvers.
Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) wrote the young-adult novel, based on little-known WWII history, which inspired this production. Adding her playful genius is co-adaptor/director Emma Rice of the Kneehigh company, responsible for four exuberant London-to-U.S. imports to date, starting with 2009’s Brief Encounter.
A cheery, almost cartoonish cross between a barn and a bandshell, topped by a propeller and a participatory band, adapts to multiple settings. The one through-character, as ages and generations shift, is the crooner Blues Man (Akopre Uzoh), who sings era-appropriate songs when not dropping cultural references on know-it-all Lily. (Asked whether she has heard of Bertolt Brecht, she retorts, “Yeah, of course I have. He lives down at the bottom of the lane and my mom says when his wife goes out he puts on her nightie.”)
Lily finds her ideal sparring partner in an agemate evacuee, Barry (Adam Sopp), dispatched to the countryside to evade the Blitz. He’s bemused by her taunts and explosions, as if able to interpret their emotional subtext. An incipient crush serves to unleash Lily’s ill-contained inner demon.
Far more consequential warfare is underway out on the Channel, and it would be uncouth to divulge the details, except to say that both the American and British governments apparently managed to keep the devastating consequences of their trial run under wraps for half a century. Morpurgo and Rice have resurrected an important story, and tell it well, in vivid scenes that a wise, wild child could easily absorb.