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.

4/5

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)