Pros: A brave attempt at giving a nuanced look at the vilified politician’s early life.
Cons: Playwright-director Oliver Michell shoots himself in the foot with an oversimplified conclusion.
When I moved to the UK from my native Holland about a year ago, I knew of four British politicians: Cameron, Blair, Thatcher and Powell. The only thing I knew about the latter then was that he gave the Rivers of Blood speech which would lead to his dismissal and to this day make him one of the most controversial figures in British politics. It wasn’t much, but it was more than enough to get me interested in what exactly ‘the love story of Enoch Powell’ would entail.
In The Tulip Tree we meet Powell as a young man with an already astonishing career behind him, and an even shinier one ahead. But a cushy job isn’t everything in life; Enoch has his eyes set on a young aristocrat named Barbara and intends to make that clear to her over the course of a weekend spent at her parents’ house. Unfortunately there’s competition in the form Barbara’s old friend Paul who’s also staying over with his army buddy Edward.
It’s the set up for a number of cringeworthy confrontations. Enoch is head over heels for Barbara, so much so that he’s unable to see that she doesn’t feel the same way about him. Particularly exasperating is the moment he recounts an earlier conversation with Barbara to Edward and somehow manages to see Barbara’s polite interest in his talk about the nature of love as them ‘pledging their souls’ to one another.
Alexander Shenton does an excellent job at portraying Enoch’s peculiar blend of uptight nerdiness and romantic naivety. He even manages to make his character, dare I say it, somewhat likeable. The other characters are less well-developed, sometimes flat, but there’s of course only so much director and writer Oliver Michell can show in a mere fifty minutes.
Overall the show presents us with a nuanced and sensitive look at Enoch Powell before he became Enoch ‘Rivers of Blood’ Powell. I was therefore disappointed when in the last five minutes Michell, apparently feeling the need to make a point, rather simplistically concludes that Barbara’s rejection is what turned the wide-eyed poet into the man who gave that infamous speech. It doesn’t do justice to the complexity of human nature and, on a more prosaic note, it doesn’t do justice to the rest of the play.
The Drayton Arms has an intimate auditorium located above the pub and as you would expect on a lovely summer’s evening, the atmosphere was tropical. The cast will probably not be thanking designer Helena Trebar for their full riding costumes complete with knee-high boots, but they did look fantastic, even with the sweat pouring down their faces. The set is a no-nonsense affair which is effective but looks a bit cramped on the small floor space.
All in all The Tulip Tree is an intriguing play that unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to what it promises. It’s a narrow miss though, and I look forward to seeing more of Oriel Theatre Company’s work in the future.
Author and Director: Oliver Michell
Producer: Oriel Theatre Company
Booking Information: This show has now completed its run at the Drayton Arms Theatre, but will play at the Edinburgh Festival from 1 to 23 August 2014.