Theatre review: These Trees Are Made of Blood, the Arcola Theatre

Reviewing theatre in the summer is a fool’s game. Unless you’re in Edinburgh, or anywhere outside with your head in a bucket of Pimms, you’re an idiot. The notable exception this year is These Trees Are Made of Blood, a cabaret set in Argentina currently showing at the Arcola Theatre; fortunately the show perfectly suits the muggy, still heat of an unventilated brick building in the middle of a heat wave.

It is dark, loud and hot. Half naked men and women sit at small tables around a raised stage, fanning themselves with programmes, tickets, and in one optimist’s case, a plastic cup. The stage is empty, spare a sign overhead with sporadically lit light bulbs that reads Coup Coup. A corseted, fish-netted man in pasties and a moustache cavorts up and down the stairs by the audience, and on a raised platform to the side of the stage a band plays enthusiastic Latin music. The show has begun before we’ve even realised.

These Trees Are Made of Blood tells the story of Argentina’s Dirty War, which was waged by the state on its citizens from 1976 to 1983. During that time, between 15,00 – 30,000 people disappeared at the hands of their government, accused of insurgency, communism, and intension to commit terrorism.

So obviously it’s an ideal subject for a fun night of cabaret. The show’s creators – Amy Draper, Darren Clark and Paul Jenkins – must have balls of steel, or at the very least, pewter kahunas. For all intents and purposes, we start off with a cabaret. There’s a band, there’s an MC, there are magicians, singers, and there’s a male burlesque dancer. But the MC is a high-ranking General, the magician is a Sub Lieutenant, and the burlesque dancer is a Wing Commander.

But that doesn’t really matter! There’s only a hint of funny dictatorship with minor comedic references to military genocide! LOL! But as we barrel through the first act with songs such as The Coup Coup Club, The Father of the Nation and the ludicrously catchy Empanadas it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems. By the interval the room has descended into an uneasy tension.

Rob Castell as our MC and the General is excruciatingly horrid. He is funny, charming and utterly, uncompromisingly vile – and therefore excellent. His ability to make otherwise un-violent audience members want to punch him in the throat is commendable.  Ellen O’Grady plays Gloria, a mother looking for her disappeared daughter, with subtlety as well as power. The live music gives the show at first a Latin party atmosphere, which descends into a discordant, disruptive energy by the end of the show. Anne-Marie Piazza in particular is a phenomenal singer, managing to be first brash and then delicate, and everything in between.

These Trees Are Made of Blood is an epic show, one that shows why – in the age of video content, live streaming and 3D film – theatre is still relevant. The music is live and loud, the audience is involved, engaged and amused, but it still captures the realism of true stories and honest portrayals. These Trees bridges the void between farcical satire and honest, emotional storytelling. It leaves you questioning how you didn’t even know these atrocities happened, but also whistling along to Empanadas on the bus home, and wondering where you might be able to buy electric blue feather fans for your next strip tease. It’s Pinochet Chic, darling.

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