'These Trees Are Made of Blood' is on at the Arcola in Summer 2017. This review is from its 2015 run at Southwark Playhouse.
Evita is dead. Gone are Argentina’s glory days and the schmaltz of Lloyd Webber’s historical whitewash. Between 1974 and 1983 the country was under a reign of terror, oppressed by a right-wing junta that made tens of thousands of people disappear.
Theatre Bench’s show compresses Argentina’s Dirty War into a seedy cabaret bar – the Coup Coup Club. The General (Greg Barnett) is our MC, telling tawdry jokes and wandering through the audience as we cluster around cabaret tables.
After a couple of acts – a striptease and a magic show – a story starts to emerge, scenes interspersed with songs by a live band: Gloria (Val Jones) let her daughter Ana (Charlotte Worthing) attend a protest. Ana never returned. Gloria is a determined mother and joins the Madres de Plaza de Mayo to demand information, commemoration and reparation from the governments that followed The General’s junta.
Darren Clark’s compositions are boisterous and the band plays brilliantly, but as the show goes on the songs become less frequent and the Coup Coup Club is dismantled. A serious tone takes over: there are projections, verbatim accounts – it becomes a straightforward play. The hard edge has completely softened by the end. It’s no longer satire, instead adopting the earnest tone that a play about murdered youths might normally demand – and might normally begin with.
But somehow it feels false. The Coup Coup’s seediness is so seductive and the pleasure not guilty enough. The General and his gang force conflict in us: should we enjoy or condemn? In full preacher mode, wearing its sappiness on its sleeve, all the bizarre bite and novelty of form vanishes. Suddenly the play wants us to cry for Argentina – and of course we should – but it hasn’t put the emotional groundwork in place.
The Coup Coup Club is a provocative allegory for an evil regime. It may be tasteless, but ridicule is a powerful form of redress, even revenge. Still, although we’re entertained, we’re not pushed hard enough to question if that’s okay. The allegory peters out, which means that where it should hit hard, it just doesn’t.