On Saturday night I was lucky enough to attend a preview of one of the most incredible nights in the ‘theatre’ I have ever seen. Tree, part of the Manchester International Festival, co created by Idris Elba and Kwame Kweih-Armah, which officially opens next week, delivered on so many levels, and I am extremely glad I got a chance to experience its magic.
The Festival have taken over Upper Campfield Market in the Castlefield area of Manchester for this production, and the staging allows for a truly immersive experience, with regular use of the audience as part of the performance. As you enter there is a nightclub vibe, and the crowd is encouraged to dance by the cast, stewards and incredible volunteers ( full disclosure, I’m a proud member of the volunteer army, but I didn’t manage to get any shifts on Tree!) . Whilst the booking process made clear it was a standing performance, there were actually plenty of places for those less able to stand for the whole show, and the audience are free to move around throughout the performance.
The storyline concerns a young man, Kaelo (Alfred Enoch), who following a family tragedy, travels to his parents homeland, South Africa, where his spiky Grandmother played by Sinead Cusack, still owns a farm. We follow his journey as he discovers his family history and the events that lead to his mother leaving her home to bring her child up in the UK. Whilst it does not gloss over the horrific treatment of black South Africans in all too recent history, it is ultimately a tale of family and love in all its complexity and messiness.
The set design is clever, allowing the audience to surround the action, and sometimes be a part of it in a very fluid way. Gorgeous lighting, coupled with projection onto a beautiful woven backdrop, complement the action and the various settings perfectly. There’s some brilliant and almost dreamlike choreography built into the performance, and the story itself is movingly told, and, on a personal level, opened my eyes to some things that whilst I was aware of them, I should know more about.
The cast are amazing, most taking on multiple roles, expanding the performance into the whole space, and the energy and commitment they give to the piece from the minute the audience enters the space to the post show celebration of life, is beyond astounding, especially when you take into account the extreme heat on the night I visited (having worked in the venue myself I know it can be an absolute oven on hot days, and freezing when the temperature drops! Top marks to Cusack, who has to wear a cardiga for most of her on stage moments)
It should be noted, this was a preview performance, and things will undoubtedly change before its official opening next week, but not much needs to as it seemed pretty amazing to me. It officially opens as part of the Manchester International Festival line up on 4th July, with previews from 2nd, and I think it is very likely to sell out once word of its magic gets out there, so book quickly. Following Manchester it is going to the Young Vic in London from 29th July