BWW Review: THESE TREES ARE MADE OF BLOOD, Arcola Theatre
It should be right up my street - cabaret (always political of course) used to tell a story that needs telling today more than ever. And yet this strange mix of fourth wall breaking showmanship and polemical drama seemed to slide between discourses, never really settling sufficiently to please those who came for the songs and gags and those who came to bear witness to the victims of a largely forgotten state-sponsored murder machine.
Rob Castell's General, all shiny medals and tasselly epaulettes, is our slimy, smarmy MC, smiling, bantering, even warm - but with a edge of menace that grows as his fervent belief that Argentina needs saving from its radical Left hardens into a systematic programme of mass kidnapping. He's supported by his sidekicks, psy-ops specialist Sub Lieutentant Suarez (Neil Kelso in evil Derren Brown mode) and Wing Commander Campos (Alexander Luttley as a malevolent Frank N. Furter). And so we learn of a State that is ruthless, paranoid and increasingly psychotic - and propped up by the CIA.
We meet the victims too. Ana (Charlotte Worthing, wide eyed and innocent), a student protesting about bus fares, "disappeared" by the regime in its Dirty War, and her mother, Gloria (Ellen O'Grady, traumatised and relentless) , one of the many, many mothers whose pursuit of The Disappeared played a key role in the toppling of The Junta and in promoting the eventual, sketchy judicial process.
Act One is primarily cabaret, with a multi-talented group of musician actors supporting the principals with some splendid songs (by Darren Clark) amongst which the military apologists' excuse for terror "The Coup Coup Club" and a mother's plea for a future of quiet domesticity, "Empanadas", stood out. The music is live and urgent, reeking of South America and worth the entry fee alone.
Where the show loses its way is in its overly detailed account of political violence in Act Two. Suddenly, the fourth wall is back and, though the songs return, they are reprised (beautifully by O'Grady in "My Little Bird") as laments rather than as showy entertainment. The energy, so strong in Act One, dissipates and a long evening stretches on further and further. Paul Jenkins' book loses momentum and becomes, at least for me, somewhat predictable, as it must be for anyone who had any interest in the politics of the Left in the 80s. It felt a little like the creators did not trust their cabaret discourse to do the heavy lifting of honouring the dead - but I'm sure it could have.
These Trees Are Made Of Blood is boldly conceived and executed with élan, an example of the kind of political commitment that is suddenly back in fashion. With a shorter running time and a little more trust in its audience's ability to get the story without being told every detail, its considerable ambition would have been fully realised.