The Bristol Old Vic hosts the 10th anniversary performance of An Oak Tree by eminent theatre maker Tim Crouch. His penchant for creating work that questions and pushes the boundaries of theatrical form has made him one of the most discussed theatre makers of the last ten years. Despite the distinct absence of a tree, oak or otherwise, the play delves into the audience’s expectations of theatrical representation and raises questions about how we expect characters to interact in a relatively unrehearsed situation.
We are asked to believe that we have been transported to a pub, and that Crouch is a failed hypnotist performing for us. He plucks an audience member from the front row, a woman he has met an hour earlier but who has no idea of what is about to commence. Five minutes in, he announces that the actress, Neve McIntosh, will be playing a 40 year old man who has lost his daughter in a car accident. As the performance progresses, different monologues delivered by Crouch, or his volunteer, reveal a linear narrative that allowes the audience to emotionally connect with the actor’s experience.
However, the situation remaines absurd enough to highlight the fact that conventional theatrical barriers are being broken, or ignored entirely. Crouch achieves this effect by acting as a failing talk show host. The atmosphere is accentuated by game show music (designed by Peter Gill) that occasionally jarres with the narrative and often makes the situation seem forced. The microphone he is using also seems to malfunction occasionally which accentuates the awkward moments when he stammers, loses his place, or simply has to guide McIntosh back to the narrative he is trying to maintain.
The breaking of theatrical boundaries creates the illusion that the performance is somehow casual or unrehearsed. While the latter is certainly true, it is clearly the kind of piece that relies on rigorous planning on Crouch’s part in order to avoid collapsing in on itself. The element of freedom, or danger, provided by having a different volunteer play the father each night, is part of what keeps the show fresh, but also provides an undercurrent of tension because you never know if the volunteer will go in a direction that Crouch can’t predict, or stop cooperating entirely.
Crouch manages to draw attention to the theatricality of the piece without destroying the illusion of the story he has created. The piece is engaging, and by blatantly flouting theatrical norms, it raises questions that might not have arisen in a more mainstream performance. 3/5
Review written Madeleine Golding.
An Oak Tree is currently showing at the Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 19th September. For more information on the production, visit here…
For more information on Crouch’s work, visit here…