‘In the dark times, will there also be singing?’ A quote from German dramatist Bertolt Brecht is an unlikely start to a family show. But it’s no more unlikely than its bleak, knotty subject matter. Globe boss Emma Rice has brought in one she made earlier with her quirky old company Kneehigh’s for an unexpectedly joyful adaptation of Michael Morpugo’s book, set during a disastrous WW2 training exercise where 946 American soldiers died. It’s full of political bite, heart… and plenty of singing.
Lily is a 12-year-old girl whose peaceful life on the Devon village of Slapton is being blown apart. First her Dad leaves to fight, then evacuees fill her school, then her whole village is evacuated to make way for American GIs training for the D-Day landings. Lily is played in delightfully bratty style by Katy Owen, a 30-something woman with pigtails. But that’s not the kind of detail that Emma Rice expects us to quibble over. The ensemble cast morph from schoolkids to soldiers by changing hats, or jump years into the future by chucking on grey wigs. It’s a style that heightens the uncertainty and dislocation of a time where an insular community is filled with new arrivals. Evacuees struggle to fit in, and are bullied by locals for their colourful tickety boo, Bob’s Your Uncle slang – but the kids are all united by their bewilderment at meeting American soldiers, many of them black.
The GI’s world is brought to the stage by a toe-tapping live jazz band that fills the sleeping village with life. And they win over the villagers’ hearts, as well as eardrums, with presents of chocolate and Thanksgiving frankfurters. They risk their jobs to bring back Lily’s cat, who’s left behind in her evacuated village - before embarking on a mission where the stakes are much, much higher.
This is part-history lesson, part-variety show: highlights include a song played on beer bottles, entrances on a fireman’s pole, and Winston Churchill performing a skipping display that makes a roaring case for the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics. And that makes for a weirdly meandering, disjointed pace, which flounders through all the shades of moral grey this story throws up. But somehow, there’s enough silliness, jazz and heartwarming sap to jolly us through to a joyful ending that’s more than just tickety boo.