Tree House

We knew, from the moment that we were allowed into the main hall in Wimborne’s Allendale Centre, that this was going to differ from the usual theatre experience because there was audience seating both on the stage and on the floor of the theatre and the chairs were facing, unconventionally, away from the stage and into the auditorium – as also was the lighting rig.

In the centre of the hall stood a two-storey edifice of welded steel tube and mesh with a stepladder up the middle with a mostly two-dimensional extension of similar structure to the right; this whole comprised the performance arena. Furniture consisted of three open-sided steel and mesh boxes. Two hat/coat stands, on which hung various garments to be donned and doffed during the show, stood at the back.

There was a fourth box, which was occupied (as a seat) throughout the production by the cellist, Sarah Moody, who performed to her own composition the backing music and dramatic sounds all on that one instrument – with some additional atmospheric vocalisations.

In this environment and with this setting it was a show of extraordinary intimacy. At times it seemed that the cast of three were talking to me rather than to other members of the audience. It was also a show of exquisite poetry, as the performers voiced their own narrative as well as their dialogue. I was reminded at times of the imagery of the late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, whose early work I studied at school;  ‘Ripping the heart out of the silence’ was one image that I noted,  ‘The crows mocked him with their raucous calls’ was another. Here and there were touches of humour and references to both the big screen (‘Look at me, Ma! I’m on top of the world’) and to popular music (‘We can all be heroes – just for one day’), while elsewhere there were literary and classical references; I noted ‘Agamemnon freed from Clytemnestra’.

The performances were first-rate; Robert Durbin as the central character, Robbie, commanded the role and masses of narration with consummate ease. Sarah Lawrie played many parts in several different dialects, costumes and, strangely, several pairs of shoes; they were all utterly convincing and moving, most notably poignant as Robbie’s childhood friend, Jane. Anthony Cozens also played several convincing and word-perfect parts in varied costumes and dialects.

The action moved from the home village to Afghanistan and back via several other locations all portrayed by, in and around that steel cage mentioned above. It variously featured as tree house, farm house, children’s home, army barracks, courtroom, prison, armoured personnel carrier, offices, building site and housing estate. The three steel and mesh boxes served as chairs, tables, farm equipment, cases of military ordnance, vehicles and exploding debris.

I can’t praise this show enough. It was quite the best thing I have seen in the straight drama genre and I won’t forget it in a hurry, nor will the rest of the small but appreciative audience – ‘powerful’ was a word I heard used more than once. Top marks to the cast, to writer/director Chris Fogg and to Mayou Trikerioti for that set design.

Sadly, it is nearing the end of its run. It plays at the Shelley Theatre in Boscombe on 1 December, at Exeter Street Hall in Brighton on 3 December and closes at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden on 4 December.

Maybe it will come round again. See it if you get a chance.