These Trees Are Made of Blood at Arcola Theatre review

In 1970s Argenti­na, a mil­i­tary takeover ush­ers in an era of ter­ror and uncer­tain­ty. You wouldn’t know it from the camp goings on at the Coup Coup club. Here, a senior offi­cer known sim­ply as The Gen­er­al (Rob Castell) and his lieges Sub Lieu­tenant Suarez (Neil Kel­so) and cross-dress­ing Wing Com­man­der Cam­pos (Alexan­der Lut­t­ley) make light of polit­i­cal oppres­sion. They play sin­is­ter par­ty games, make dis­taste­ful jokes and, ahem, do reverse strip teases.

Out­side in the real world, stu­dent Ana Ben­itez (Char­lotte Wor­thing), goes miss­ing on her way home from a protest. Her moth­er Glo­ria (Ellen O’Grady) begins a relent­less search for the truth about what has hap­pened to her daugh­ter. The state obfus­cates with the com­plic­i­ty of the Catholic church, twist­ing holy scrip­tures in the Amer­i­can-spon­sored dictatorship’s favour.

Hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly steered clear of polit­i­cal engage­ment, Glo­ria becomes an activist: at first reluc­tant, but more deter­mined as she starts to unrav­el the state’s web of lies. On the streets, she demon­strates with numer­ous oth­er par­ents whose chil­dren have van­ished after appar­ent­ly being bru­talised by the government.

At its best, the bathos of musi­cal satire can fore­ground life’s dark­ness in a counter-intu­itive­ly effec­tive man­ner. Inspired by the har­row­ing expe­ri­ences of the real Las Madres of Argenti­na, These Trees Are Made of Blood fol­lows in the steps of The Scotts­boro Boys, and its most obvi­ous par­al­lel, Cabaret, to bring to light the oth­er­wise anony­mous sto­ries of the count­less vic­tims of Argentina’s right-wing 1970/80s dictatorship.

The con­cept might raise a quizzi­cal eye­brow: “Many peo­ple I men­tioned the idea to said, ‘You want to do a cabaret musi­cal about the mur­der and tor­ture of 30,000 peo­ple? You’re nuts. Good luck with it,’” says co-cre­ator Dar­ren Clark.

The goal wasn’t to be unortho­dox for its own sake. He want­ed to elic­it the human­i­ty behind what can often be mis­con­ceived as dry pol­i­tics. Rest assured, Clark’s script – co-writ­ten by Paul Jenk­ins and direct­ed by Amy Drap­er – as well as its mem­o­rable com­po­si­tions (also by Clark) ren­der the sto­ry the respect and sobri­ety it deserves.

If the first act lures you into a sense of lev­i­ty by way of face­tious show tunes and Castell’s impres­sive ban­ter with an unsus­pect­ing audi­ence, the sec­ond act is a baton whack across the face with hard real­i­ty. The anguish is rein­forced by Geor­gia Lowe and Alex Berry’s affect­ing set design, pop­u­lat­ed with the images of young lives lost to the regime.

The mul­ti-tal­ent­ed, mul­ti-task­ing cast switch from farce to tragedy and back again with jaw-drop­ping panache and con­vic­tion. These Trees Are Made of Blood is a mutu­al­ly enter­tain­ing and deeply haunt­ing triumph.


These Trees Are Made of Blood is show­ing at the Arco­la The­atre, Lon­don, until July 15. For book­ing infor­ma­tion vis­it here.

Images: Helen Mur­ray (cour­tesy of Arco­la Theatre)