An Oak Tree (4 stars)

Seen at Arches Theatre Festival, run ended

A slim blonde woman is standing on an almost bare stage. She has just been told that she is a 46-year-old man, and that her daughter is dead, and that she can’t get over it. This is who she will become.

In each performance of the award winding play An Oak Tree, a different volunteer plays the role of the Father. The recent Arches production featured local actress Cora Bissett, who (like her predecessors) was not given a script or an opportunity to rehearse, and only met her co-star Tim Crouch shortly before the performance. Crouch, who also wrote and directed, plays an end-of-pier hypnotist involved in the death of a child. The child’s father has volunteered to be in his stage show, but why? The dramatic tension lies partly in the unfolding interaction between the two characters, and partly in the tentative collaboration between Crouch and his “second actor” – two people teetering on the edge, feeling their way towards an unpredictable outcome. Here, the relationship between hypnotist and subject, grieving parent and guilty party, actor and volunteer becomes blurred, and the audience finds themselves responding not just to the characters’ grief, but to the vulnerability of the actors. However, vulnerability should not be confused with fragility, or unpredictability with improvisation. The play is tightly structured and Crouch, although generous towards his collaborators, is always in control. Perhaps aware of this, he chooses to deconstruct his play mid-performance – ‘Who’s your favourite character?’ he asks his co-star. ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit contrived?’ Contrived? Perhaps, but Crouch’s dialogue goes to the bone. We believe in these characters. Like an oak tree, their grief is tangible and solid. Bissett agrees. After the performance, she says: ‘There’s no time to think, you have to react in the second. Your reactions are pure, they’re real.’

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