The Dummy Tree

Tue 25th – Sat 29th October 2011

reviews

Hyunwoo June Choo

at 09:15 on 26th Oct 2011

1agrees

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Choices are hard to make; choices involving personal sacrifices, even harder. Conor Mitchell takes this universally evident life lesson, develops a unique twist of this theme for each of his characters and draws them together in front of the timeless Dummy Tree. James Carroll’s interpretation of Mitchell’s piece is well carried out, complete with a whole package of talented cast and production crew.

Much of this show’s success can be attributed to the flawless harmony of acting, lighting, and musical exchange between the two juxtaposed scenes on the stage. Such synchrony is critical to the portrayal of the plot, as a setup like this is often risky—it easily could have jeopardized the clarity of the two scene’s relationship, leading the audiences astray into confusion. The dichotomy of two scenes in this play is clear from the start: on one side of tree stands a teenage mother (Kathryn Armstrong) caressing her infant baby in a pushchair. Her calm and gentle demeanor towards the baby belies her inner turmoil, evident in the doleful look of her eyes and the rather philosophical “letting go” reiterations to her infant.

The other side of stage exudes anxiety. The groom, Paul (Chris Morgan), with only moments before his wedding, stands in front of the dummy tree lost in thought. On the tree hang baby’s dummies and cigarette packs, with alcohol bottles adorning the base of the trunk. To endearingly hilarious Nob (Liam Steward-George), the groom’s best man, Paul’s contemplation appears more than inappropriate, and comically trivializes the tree as mere “vandalism” as a futile effort to put Paul back in the wedding scene. As the clock ticks, more of the wedding crew joins the stage in panic. Paul is only dealing with cold feet, they console themselves; but the root of his uncertainty and confusion stems deeper into his history with the dummy tree.

Dramatic irony drives the plot. At a point, the storyline falls to prediction, but the cast still captivates the audience with their vocal talent and honest emotion. A stronger sense of urgency could have enhanced the reality of a wedding gone awry, but overall, the emotions were there. Each character has a story to tell, and their honest quirks and confessions create intimacy with the audience. Most powerful moments were during ensembles, when each character preserved their spirit to stratify the meaning of lyrics into unique layers.

As much as I loved the cast, I cannot leave out the staging effects that create the dynamic set: the costume effectively makes conspicuous the contrast across the stage; lighting accentuates sentimental undertones; and the addition of an on-stage viewing of video recording gave a palpable access to Kubrick’s (Tom Lyle) perspective. Most striking, though, is how the accompanying pianist undertakes the acting role himself, and readily adjusts the intensity of the music to the personality of each character.

Sentimental and suspenseful, The Dummy Tree left me engaged until the last word of the bittersweet ending. The clichéd theme may be a turn-off for a few, but on the whole, I highly recommend you make a visit to the Dummy Tree.

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Zoe Apostolides

at 09:32 on 26th Oct 2011

1agrees

1disagrees

Musical theatre isn't done very often in Oxford and, let's face it, on the whole when it is it's done badly. How refreshing then to be presented with Conor Mitchell's The Dummy Tree, a play which uses song primarily as a way of communicating truths the characters wouldn't otherwise be able to say to one another. Opening night and the BT is filled to capacity, yet for the most part you couldn't hear a pin drop throughout the performance.

What is intended, and does, catch the eye immediately is the omnipresent dummy tree, an eerily beautiful metaphor for the redemptive powers of resistance in the face of addiction. Set designer Anna Lewis deserves a mention for this reason - long pieces of string and ribbons connect the many branches from which dangle dummies, packets of cigarettes, bottles of vodka. Intelligently placed stage left, it commands attention even when the focus of the action lies with characters standing right before the audience. Any attempt to ignore its presence is lost on the cast, who are ultimately rendered speechless by its unusual power.

We are first shown the figure of a young mother with a pram, trying to explain to her child - and to a lesser extent, herself - why everyone must eventually grow up and that this involves letting go of certain things. Couple this with seventeen year-old Paul, an hour from marrying the girl he has loved for two years, but suddenly experiencing a dread of uncertainty. Kathryn Armstrong and Chris Morgan handle these two most important roles with immense sensitivity; as their stories begin to overlap so too do their respective songs. The production would fail hopelessly without the aid of strong lead vocals and happily this was managed well by both. I did feel that, in comparison with other minor characters both Armstrong and Morgan could have commanded the stage with a more full presence. Having said that, however, part of the play's focus is the babble of 'others', each with their own tale to tell, who inevitably diminish the centrality of the young mother and Paul. Fantastic comic relief is provided in the form of Maisie Jenkinson's Binge as well as Tom Lyle's Kubrick, without which the text may have leant towards sentimentality, even cheesiness. Elspeth Cumber similarly revealed the propensity for duality in an otherwise bolshy character; like the central pair, she too demonstrates a life full of disappointment, or so she perceives. The irony of this is that all members of the cast are identified as being in their late teens yet, as Nob comments, "time is running out".

What's really striking about the performance is the validity of its message. The Dummy Tree draws a sharp distinction between 'youth' and 'being young'; the tree represents both the difficulty of moving on as well as its redemptive qualities. We get the sense that the baby's young mother does not truly want her son to have to part with his dummy, the symbol of lost childhood and one to which the appropriately-named Binge returns. One very successful decision on the part of director James Carroll is the use of the video camera, brought along to the deserted dummy tree by the wedding-day film-maker, who refuses to allow the occasion to escape undocumented. Projected images of the cast as they are obsessively filmed lends a somewhat nostalgic element to the performance, even as the audience watch. Just as time ticks on, Paul and the young mother must make choices, and are bombarded with questions - from themselves, from the cast, and ultimately from the audience: is it possible to really 'let go' of an object, a way of life, a person? What does the tree really represent? Is its decoration vandalism or a strange form of catharsis? Is it simply a 'rehab tree' or a work of art? Go along to the BT this week and ask yourself; this is a pleasantly surprising accomplishment.

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Comments

Xandra Burns; 27th Oct 2011; 00:12:37

First of all, major compliments to Anna Lewis for the captivating set, Dougie Perkins for the lighting, and Ben Holder for the music - these are the elements that tie the show together so cohesively that they are not noticeable as distinct components of theatre. I found myself wondering "why does this work so well?" and I think the combination of those elements makes up most of the answer.

Conor Mitchell's musical is, well, nice. It's feel-good. Makes you laugh a lot. For the most part the music slips into the dialogue uncannily well, although there isn't anything particularly inspiring about the music itself. The story is a little cliché and very predictable, and at times the writing seems juvenile, especially with some unnatural transitions in plot.

However, director James Carroll's production manages to work around the musical's setbacks. The staging is elegant and the action is continuous and engaging. I enjoyed performances by all of the actors, in particular the very effective comic contrast between Chris Morgan as Paul and Liam Steward-George as Nob.

Zoe, I have to disagree with your view that Armstrong and Morgan should have commanded the stage with a more full presence - While the characters surrounding them are focused on the wedding and what's actually going on around them, The Mother and Paul's emotions are internalized - they are NOT present, so any interpretation of a "lack of presence" is actually a job well done to the actors, I think :)

A unique production - very cool to see a musical done in such an intimate setting as the BT - certainly the right choice of venue for this particular play.

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