Music and Lyrics: Darren Clark
Writer: Paul Jenkins
Director: Amy Draper
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
‘The most virulent parasite is an idea’, so says The General in this examination of Argentina’s despotic leadership who were responsible for the abduction of protesting citizens in the 70s and 80s. Ideas are certainly dangerous things; they may bring technological progress, thoughtful deeds and useful solutions, but for dictatorial regimes ideas can bring dissent and the possibility of mass uprising and potential overthrow. The only way to cling on to power is to crush the idea and all those who harbour it.
Inside ‘The Little’ theatre at Southwark Playhouse the audience are welcomed into a smoky cabaret club complete with round tables, a stage and a number of Music Hall-style acts, overseen by Master of Ceremonies The General. Mixing songs and performance, first up a somewhat wobbly strip tease and feather waving act that got frequently tangled in the lights followed by a transvestite dancer in fishnets and corset. At this point you would be forgiven for despairing for the lot of poor young actors forced to take on these things just to be on a London stage.
But then the magician picks a random girl, Ana (Charlotte Worthing), from the audience, making her disappear and suddenly this production hits its stride. Her mother Gloria (Val Jones) interrupts the show to try and find her, but is put off at every turn by The General and his lackeys, while it soon becomes clear that the wonderfully named Coup Coup Club is a metaphor for Argentina’s autocratic government – full of acts, showmanship and a stage-managed appearance of ease and content. Gloria relives the last time she saw Ana, going off to a student protest after which she was never seen again, and as the years pass, the production moves between the crumbling state cabaret and Gloria’s memories.
The idea of political theatre can be rather intimidating, but in Darren Clark’s music and Paul Jenkins’s script, entertainment and a disturbing piece of history are seamlessly integrated, making this absolutely compelling to watch. It never feels like a lecture but a carefully constructed story that packs an emotional punch. Its style is somewhere between Oh What a Lovely War and Moulin Rouge but with South American dictators, and is a really clever way to present a dark chapter in Argentina’s history.
The entire cast and musicians work really well as an ensemble so scenes run smoothly together, and director Amy Draper has been imaginative in the use of a tiny space, placing the action all around the room to keep the audience involved. The musical numbers are full of drama and at times great sadness, especially the melancholy My Little Bird and The Ghosts of Buenos Aires which make the most of Anne-Marie Piazza’s haunting voice.
The show really belongs to Greg Barnett though playing The General whose initial charm reveals an underlying cruelty that emerges as the play progresses. Barnett brings a sense of danger to the rôle as he stalks around the audience, and later a shocking lack of regret. His singing is also excellent particularly in I’d Do it All Again which tries to argue that modern peace is based on the stability his regime enforced.
Aside from the slow start and the loathed audience participation in the early cabaret, These Trees Are Made of Blood is a quite extraordinary piece of theatre that carefully treads a fine line been its partially satirical approach and the horrific truth behind the disappearance of Argentina’s children. Ideas certainly are powerful things, and when enough of them are used in the right combination, as they are in this production, it sets a new and impressive standard for the way political story-telling and theatre can be combined.
Runs until: 11 April| Photo: Darren Bell