Pros: Written and performed with beautiful attention to detail.
Cons: A bit of noise from the traffic outside and the punters downstairs did interfere on occasion. The distraction was minimal though, given how drawn into the play I was.
Walking along the Old Brompton Road on a rather nippy spring evening, I didn’t really know what to expect from the mysteriously named The Tulip Tree. I only imagined given the symbolism of the flower – and the PR blurb – that love would make an appearance. To my surprise The Tulip Tree turned out to be far more than a simple romance, and I enjoyed it immensely on many levels.
Set post WWII in the late fifties, this play focuses on a small period of time in Enoch Powell’s young life, leading up to his appointment as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Situated between a country estate in Staffordshire and Powell’s personal lodgings, the narrative follows Powell’s relationship with a young nurse, Barbara Kennedy – the daughter of Major Monkton with whom Powell has a professional relationship. Whether you know nothing, something, or a lot about this former MP, academic and brigadier in the British army, this play is a fascinating look at a wildly intelligent man, and at mid-twentieth century British culture. Fiction or fact, the character the play put before us is utterly fascinating.
Alexander Shenton is incredible as Powell: his stilted movements contrast the free and easy complacency of upper class gents Edward Campion (Peter Wicks) and Paul Verrell (Piers Hunt), who are both equally well studied and considered characters. Shenton’s eyes sometimes appear to inhabit a world beyond the reality of the countryside life before him, a physical representation of his mental agility, separating him from everyone else further still than his intelligence and interests did as a matter of course.
Barbara Kennedy, played by Helen Reuben, is a charming object of love for Powell, their difference in education and class thrown aside by her honesty and fearlessness – no doubt something Powell respected and found little of in Westminster. Tessa Wood as Mrs Monkton is a marvellous elitist: I always feel that if the performer has succeeded in making me want to slap them then they’ve captured the essence of the snob perfectly!
The language of the script and the delicate manners of the characters really brings the affluent 1950’s setting of the play to life. The stage is well designed, with minimal well-chosen furniture and objects that spoke to the post-WWII period. The costumes are likewise incredibly effective in transporting us to this pre-digital era in our history, which in hindsight we can call charming and lovely because by contrast to the way men and women interact with one another now it very much was. Soft and gentle, the lighting design does well in the small black box studio space to take us inside and outside with the characters – and I was thrilled to see an actual tree!
In my opinion The Drayton Arms Theatre is one of the nicer pub theatres in London, no doubt assisted by the pub’s lovely exterior and fantastic location. Upstairs the theatre inhabits a nice roomy space, and the seating is very spacious and comfortable. Some slight noise interference from the traffic outside and the punters below did disrupt my focus at times, but as I say this was only slight.
I don’t want to give too much away about the plot of The Tulip Tree because I enjoyed it so much. Though clearly well-researched, it is so skilfully and poetically written that its relationship and fidelity to the real Enoch Powell isn’t as important as audience-goers might assume it would be. It is simply an interesting story to watch and hear at the theatre. Beyond its intriguing examination of academic and practical love, class, ambition and fame, this play really succeeds in its characters who are perfectly formed, each and every one. The Tulip Tree offers a truly lovely evening at the theatre, and more than warrants the very reasonable ticket price.
Writer: Oliver Michell
Producer: Oliver Michell
Presented By: Oriel Theatre Company
Co-Director, Assistant Producer: John Rushton
Co-Director, Dramaturg: Antonio Ferrara
Designer: Caitlin Abbott
Lighting Designer: Will Ingham
Booking Until: 25 April 2015
Box Office: 020 7835 2301
Booking Link: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/event/77577