Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Theatre review: An Oak Tree

"Do you think it's a bit contrived?" asks one of many knowing references in Tim Crouch's An Oak Tree, which is getting a 10th anniversary revival in The Artist Formerly Known As Shed. It's a piece performed by Crouch himself, playing a stage hypnotist who, a few months back, accidentally ran over and killed a young girl. Performing to a drunken crowd above a pub, he doesn't realise at first that the audience member who's volunteered to be hypnotised tonight is the dead girl's father. He's not there for revenge or confrontation; instead, seeing what his child's killer did for a living, he thought it might be a way of dealing with his own pain. The twist in the show's staging is that while Crouch always plays the hypnotist, the role of the father is played by a different actor every night - tonight it was Maggie Service.

Furthermore, Crouch requires of his co-star that they be completely unfamiliar with the piece on the way in - like everyone who's appeared in it over the years*, Service had never seen the play or read a script, and had only met with Crouch about an hour before curtain-up, to be given a few pointers about how the show would work. For the most part, what this actually involves is Crouch telling her directly what to say and do, although at some points she is given a script to read from, at others she puts in earphones so Crouch can whisper lines and instructions to her through the mic, unheard by the audience.

Inasmuch as a story is revealed, it sees the father having trouble accepting his daughter's death, his denial stretching to the point where he begins to insist that the oak tree near the scene of the accident has become a reincarnation of the girl. These fantasies get mixed in with the hypnotic suggestions he's been given, and the show's structure reflects this by having moments where it's not clear if Crouch and Service are conversing in character or as themselves - since even when speaking as "herself," Service's lines are scripted. It's clever, of course, but I'm far from sold on the combination of format and subject matter: The contrived nature of the show that Crouch makes knowing reference to means that's what we're watching, not engaging with the grieving father in any way. And the fact that much of the show is Crouch giving his co-star instructions which they then follow, means even the gimmick isn't one that stays interesting throughout. Quite early on I knew I wasn't going to buy into any kind of emotional link with the characters, and often was quite bored as the technical aspects of telling the story in this way clicked into place.

An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch is booking until the 15th of July at the National Theatre's Keith.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

*obviously Maggie Service isn't a disappointment as surprise co-star, she's currently being a lot of fun in Rules for Living, but there's a full list of past performers in the cast sheet, showing that over the years you could have seen the likes of Tom Brooke, Christopher Eccleston, Kathryn Hunter, F. Murray Abraham, Frances McDormand, Peter Dinklage, David Hyde Pierce, David Harewood, Hugh Bonneville, EVE BEST, Alan Cumming and Alex Kingston. And, er, Alanis Morissette.

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