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Brighton Fringe 2024

Rootless Tree

Untangle This Productions

Genre: American Theater, Drama, Theatre

Venue: Rotunda


Low Down

Two women grappling with a lot more than The Great Depression


The Great Depression really started with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. More than merely a recession, it hit everybody in the USA and its contagion spread across the globe (akin to Metternich’s famous “When France sneezes, Europe catches cold”). Its socio-economic effects were devastating. It was a contributory factor in Hitler’s rise to power, though that’s another story. It’s thought that the USA only really emerged from this by setting its economy onto a war footing during World War II.

So seismic was the period, such was its impact upon the American national psyche, that we have seen countless examples of great literature set in the Great Depression, among others The Grapes Of Wrath, To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice And Men. All of which brings us to Rootless Tree, written by JP Livingston.

The set exudes classic Fringe minimalism : an ironing board, table, stools and wooden containers. A decanter of liquor, glasses and ashtray complete the set.

Both women are clothed in dressing gowns. Norma (Jenny Coate) appears nervy, smoking a cigarette like she means it, rather than just recreationally. June (Havilah Davis) pensive in a different way, paces, akin to a caged tigress. There is a silence between them : the weight of their situation unspoken.

Over the course of Rootless Tree, the audience is given an insight into their characters and their lives, heavily affected by The Great Depression. June is a prominent member of the local religious temperance society. She wishes to portray herself as sober, serious and pious ; however, strains upon her life lead her to take the occasional drink and despite attempting to curb Norma’s smoking (“poison”), guiltily takes the occasional drag. Norma, at one time a performer in a club, is playful, provocative, a free spirit craving more than her modest situation.

Both performers are strong and their relationship immediately believable. While June does all the ironing, Norma continues drinking, seeking the next cigarette. The director, Rebecca Rowley, allows them to find thoughts and let them land, resisting the temptation to add unnecessary props to convey the era.

Some of the dialogue was lost in the performance I saw : it was a particularly blowy day at Rotunda and the tent flapped a little, but it is hard for us when we strain to hear. The story of the play – based on the writer’s family history – is that of two women simultaneously married to a bigamist, shades of Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. The wives are compelled to share the same household due to the economic depravations of The Great Depression. Honestly, I would have struggled to get that from the dialogue in this performance without that synopsis. Rootless Tree played out in around 28 minutes today and, enjoyable as it was, it felt like the middle section of a play : the situation set-up ; the development of the wives’ relationship ; the denouement.

There is doubtless an accomplished, more developed, piece in the making.