Pros: An engaging narrative, simple yet clever effects and great acting.
Cons: Sound cues were a little clunky at times – a minor gripe!
Taking my seat in the auditorium of St. James Theatre, I was struck by the unusually good view of the stage. Being on the shorter side, I have become accustomed to peering around the person in front of me but St. James Theatre’s steep seating left my view pleasantly clear. The view itself, was striking: two black stools either side of three white, vertical panels. The central panel featured the projected silhouette of a tree. Piano music played as the audience took their seats and the whole room took on an air of intrigue…
Directed and performed by Putney Arts Theatre’s Group 64, The Belinda Tree focuses on Danni (Jasmine Ilhan), a new girl in town who struggles to make friends. Teenage sister Sam (Mickey White) encourages her to befriend the girls at school but Danni has already found Belinda (Hannah Tier). The play parallels the two relationships between sisters and best friends, until a shocking twist shows us the bigger picture from a whole new angle.
Using a relatively simple narrative, the play explores an impressively deep range of themes, including friendship, family, growing up and loss. These ideas are portrayed through a young cast who are skilled far beyond their years. Emotive performances from Ilhan, White and Tier make the central characters relatable and entirely convincing. The dialogue feels natural and contemporary for the age group, an achievement from both the actors and the writer John Moorhouse. Teen dialogue written by adults can often appear forced or stereotypical but Moorhouse avoids this trap with a depiction of Danni, Sam and Belinda that feels very genuine.
Poppy James, Olivia Ball and Lily Teeling take on supporting roles and also operate the various elements of the set. As an alternate cast for the three main roles, their knowledge of the play is clear from the precision with which they conduct the scene changes. Complex choreography using the white panels is executed with elegance and the audience is never left guessing as to the location of a scene, despite the simplicity of the set. At times, the central and supporting characters come together for sequences of expressive choreography. The synchronization during these sequences was impressive and I found Belinda’s repetitive ‘horse sequence’ particularly haunting.
Sound and lighting play a central role in creating atmosphere throughout the show. Imaginative use of shadows and projection give the simple surroundings real depth and help to create illusions of passing time and memories, without the need for complex effects. The music mirrors the emotions portrayed on stage and succeeds in evoking the same feelings amongst those watching. Once or twice, sound cues were a little clunky but this was quickly forgiven by the audience, who laughed, gasped and empathized at all the right moments.
The Belinda Tree is proof that good things come in small, understated packages. With only three speaking characters, a basic set and linear narrative, the whole production is simple yet captivating. With the exception of a couple of minor audio hitches, the execution was smooth and professional. The young cast and engaging storyline are perfectly suited to the target teen audience but are equally enjoyable for people of all ages. As part of the International Festival of Playwriting and Performance, and thoroughly deserving of its 2012 Highly Commended award, it is easy to see why Trinity College London decided to bring this one back to the stage.
Author: John Moorhouse
Director: Kate Pasco, Putney Arts Theatre’s Group 64
Producer: Trinity College London
Booking Until: 10th May 2014 (Matinee)
Box Office: 0844 264 2140
Booking Link: http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk/events/the-belinda-tree/