It’s a warm Friday night in Dalston, and as you walk into These Trees Are Made of Blood at the Arcola Theatre you find yourself in a cabaret bar. A fun band is playing a lilting, easy song as we ready ourselves for the main action. We are warmly welcomed into the Coup Coup club (with a silent ‘p’) by the General (Rob Castell), all army medals and jokes in bad taste, and Wing Commander Campos (Alexander Luttley), wearing a basque, fishnet tights and nipple tassles.
Although we know it is satirical, we are swept along quite happily in this entertaining and quite risqué show of song and dance and magic, the latter provided by Sub Lieutenant Suarez (Neil Kelso). At one point Suarez does a long routine which ends in his ‘hypnotising’ everyone I could see in the room (apart from me and my neighbour). It is engaging and certainly proves the element of audience participation, but you could say that it is not necessary to do it at such great length. Meanwhile the songs continue (the music by Darren Clark really is a highlight) and then quite suddenly, after scenes of sitting on audience laps and stealing their drinks, things take a turn for the dark. Not surprisingly, since the subject matter is the military junta which rose to power in Argentina in 1976 and under which around 30,000 young people were ‘disappeared’ and tortured and many of them killed merely for voicing their own beliefs.
The cabaret setting morphs into the more personal story of Ana (Charlotte Worthing), the student who goes off to a demo with her boyfriend and never comes back. Her mother Gloria (Ellen O’Grady), as many mothers did, went searching for her. We are given a visual idea of the atrocious torture that was being committed by the men in power; we are also given a glimpse of what a mother’s grief must be like under these circumstances. We learn about history, and we learn about humanity.
Somehow, however, the two halves don’t quite add up, or maybe they just need a good prune. The cabaret of the first act is definitely an ambitious way to retell the history of this time. It is bold and different; the actors are horribly good, and the band members deliciously so (my favourite is Anne-Marie Piazza on ukelele and many other instruments, whose voice absolutely shone). It is a subject close to the heart of director Amy Draper (who conceived the idea in the first place after living in Buenos Aires herself), and it has been workshopped for some years, and had a run at the Southwark Playhouse in 2015. In order to put it on at the Arcola, it has needed crowdfunding. After this much build up I can see that it might be hard to edit down those years of ideas.
The performance is very popular and gets a standing ovation on press night. It is passionate and heartfelt about its gruesome story, and it looks and sounds amazing. The mixture of cabaret, burlesque, comedy, magic, and political music is both daring and haunting. It is just not necessary to add in so much prolonged sentimentality to an already emotional story.
hattydaze rating: ***/*****
I saw These Trees Are Made of Blood courtesy of a press ticket. It plays at the Arcola Theatre until 20th July. Booking details here.