These Trees are Made of Blood @ The Arcola Theatre

A brave piece of theatre, using sensitivity, humour and music, to depict the horror of Argentina's dirty war.
Corina J Poore

Can you imagine anything more impossible than writing and performing a musical on the ’ Disappeared’ of Argentina so-called “Dirty War’ - the tragic period during the 1970s when the military dictatorship murdered 30,000 and then claimed they never existed? In Argentina, a musical about its first lady was controversial enough. Yet it has taken ook a courages director in Amy Draper to confound us all.  Having lived in Buenos Aires for a year, she found herself drawn by the life stories of the people during the rule of the right -wing Junta from 1976 to 1983. In particular the ‘Mothers of Plaza de Mayo’ who are still demanding justice today.

This is an entertaining satire, a moving and exceptionally bold attempt by Draper to deal with a very difficult subject with sensitivity and humour.  Adapted from a book by Paul Jenkins, the original music and lyrics were composed by Darren Clark with panache and wit.  The narrative relates the story of a mother who risks all in her attempt to find her missing daughter in Buenos Aires, during the brutal regime of the Junta in the 1970s,

As the word 'cabaret' suggests, this is a mix of art forms, including song, dialogue, dance, music and a strong interaction with the audience.  This specific cabaret tone is set very early with Alexander Luttley mesmerizing us as Wing Commander Campos. It turns out to be a very suitable name as he is as camp as they come. With humour and style, he manoeuvres a very difficult role immaculately. Draper also succeeds in making us care about what happens to the characters, on both sides of the divide. Through this creative melange of art forms, brutal events are portrayed with a deeply satirical element.

 The whole idea of using cabaret was dramatic as, by involving the audience at every possible turn, it also helped people engage with the subject matter in a more profound way.   Unlike a traditional play, this interactive format pulls the spectator right into the difficult subject matter.

Structurally, ‘These Trees are made of Blood’ is a political cabaret divided into two main acts with an intermission. One might argue that the first act in particular is too long, where I could have done without some of the magic tricks and jokes, especially as it was hard to see in what way they were relevant to the narrative of the whole piece. Nevertheless, the humour was carried off in style and some was extremely funny. The second act, on the other hand, was more sober and powerful and needed time to develop the complexities of the subject matter.  This second act made-up for any misgivings I had about the first.

The performers were delightful, with ‘The General’ played superbly by Rob Castell. He was on stage most of the time and the interest never faded. The development of the characters was rounded and well-drawn, and all the performances were captivating and believable.  Also outstanding on stage was Ellen O’Grady as the Mother, and Neil Kelso as Sub-Lieutenant Suárez.  It feels unfair to only name a few as the whole company worked together in perfect timing.  They all sang and played instruments, to an unexpected level of excellence. The whole experience was both entertaining and emotional. Some of the key numbers are very memorable and evocative, such as a lullaby called ‘My little Bird’, and ‘Empanadas’, which is more up- tempo.

The band and the singers sang throughout.  The music was unusually good and varied. The cabaret humour and music did not detract from the narrative, as might have been expected, and in the end, the powerful storyline and presentation had many in the audience in tears.

The Arcola Theatre is a lovely venue. They offer good coffee and cakes in the foyer, and there is a bar at the back.  The Theatre area itself has an intimacy to its layout that adds to its appeal and yet remains big enough to include a fair size audience. The musicians played from a balcony above the set and characters played and sang, moving up and down the steps onto the stage seamlessly, the immediacy of the experience was effective.  I would say the whole venue has a good vibe and it felt good to be there.

'These Trees are Made of Blood' will be on at The Arcola Theatre until July 15th. click here for tickets

  • Director: Amy Draper
  • Music & Lyrics: Darren Clark
  • Book: Paul  Jenkins
  • Script: Paul Jenkins, Darren Clark and Amy Draper.                        
  • Cast:  Robert Andrews Castell, Rosalind Ford, Neil Kelso, Alex Luttley, Eilon Morris, Ellen O’Grady, Anne- Marie Piazza, Josh Sneesby and Charlotte Worthing.