FringeReview UK 2017
Directed in Arcola’s Studio 1 by Amy Draper These Trees Are Made Of Blood arrives in a fresh incarnation. Paul Jenkins’ book with memorable music and sharply-etched lyrics by Darren Clark make their impact. Georgia Lowe and Alex Berry’s set ingeniously pulls simple devices like balloons in a row getting popped. Typically scaffolded in Arcola style it involves a gantry where Clark’s musicians interact. Sherry Coenan’s lighting smokes and mirrors the tenebrous sleaziness of it all.
It’s been a long time coming. Not as long as justice for the Argentinean Disappeared but this remarkable ‘political musical cabaret’ developed over five years and a couple of incarnations makes its latest bid directed in Arcola’s Studio 1 by Amy Draper. Paul Jenkins’ book with memorable music and sharply-etched lyrics by Darren Clark make their impact using comic generals, wing commanders and sub-lieutenants cajoling the audience as sinister magicians. Georgia Lowe and Alex Berry’s set ingeniously pulls simple devices like balloons in a row getting popped – nasty metaphor, here – or a moving reveal at the end. Typically scaffolded in Arcola style it involves a gantry where Clark’s musicians interact. Sherry Coenan’s lighting smokes and mirrors the tenebrous sleaziness of it all.
We’re at the Coup Coup Cabaret, three magicians entertain, led by the General. Rob Castell’s bluff jocularity edged with snarl manages Alexander Luttley’s Wing Commander in cabaret dress who skews the first half to giggling horrors. Neil Kelso’s sub-lieutenant plays hypnotist tricks with the audience, then other ones. Point is, when should it turn nasty? When you can make half a generation disappear.
We might know the story in outline, students yanked off the streets for sundry protests or from home. 30,000 vanish throughout the junta’s reign from 1976-83, presumed murdered. Young women were raped, their subsequent children adopted by right-wing families.
So the story of Ellen O’Grady’s Gloria, mother of Ana (Charlotte Worthing) stands for all. There’s badinage with the General. Ana’s confronting her mother who wants her to make empanadas: instead she’s hiding a saucepan for a bus fare protest (deliberately introduced to drive poor students from education). Ana’s intemperate language in contrast to her boyfriend lands her in the Coup Coup club and an on-stage trick.
You’ll need to see how this develops. Rosalind Ford memorably dispatches ‘The School of the Americas’ as a CIA agent doing striptease whilst disavowing any responsibility. The songs get stronger throughout the second act where this occurs, though ‘The Coup Coup Club’ and ‘La Casa Rosada’ indeed most songs are catchy if not classic. There are a couple of exceptions.
As the songs strengthen and grow serious, narrative darkens. If the first half seems slightly overlong, we’re plunged into a different style in the second, bulked with straight acting, an imagined trial, another daughter’s appalled discovery and denouement. There’s an awkward gear-change.
The end though with ‘En El Fondo del Rio’ after ‘The Ghosts of Buenos Aires’ is overwhelming, especially with the set reveal, another final twist of the plot and a heart-stopping meeting. Two audience members sat quietly weeping together and could not move for minutes after. Others sat stunned.
Luttley’s turn mainly in the first act steals the show, but Castell and particularly O’Grady distinguish their respective depths as joshing cabaret dies and juntas jump out.
This is a necessary piece of theatre and the band are superb; the music’s mostly a triumph and a couple of numbers will take residence in your ear. Clark and Kelso joined by Ford, Eilon Morris, Anne-Marie Piazza and Josh Sneesby all glint on the spotlight. Theatrically it’s almost achieved too, and if it feels slightly clunky it’s that the brilliant conceit of political trickery can’t be sustained over the sombre facts the second act introduces us to. Metaphorically though it needs to work over both halves, not be afraid to continue parable even through facts. That’s a tall order if you need to blazon truth; anything less smears a fresh betrayal. Perhaps some ruthless imagination is called for, one that sadly must take no prisoners.