'An Oak Tree' or 'From little acorns...'

An Oak Tree, Tim Crouch
Temporary Theatre, 3rd July 2015

There are moments in Tim Crouch’s ‘An Oak Tree’ (revived at the National on its 10th anniversary) that’ll make your stomach twist and your heart race. There are also moments which will make your bum squirm and your heart freeze over. ‘An Oak Tree’ is Crouch’s second play and it’s just a little too clear-cut in places for my liking, but it’s still a jolting ride (directed with thoughtful precision by Andy Smith and Karl James), which picks up the framework of theatre and rattles the hell out of it.

We are sat around a near empty stage, with a sound desk to the left and a cluster of chairs nearby. Tim Crouch is our host and hypnotist for the night and – in a conceit that is much more sophisticated than it might originally appear – a different actor plays the second role of ‘Father’ every night. Some months ago, Crouch’s hypnotist knocked over and killed this Father’s daughter with his car. On this night, the two will meet again. On this night, they will struggle with the limits of the imagination – the sensory freezing that grief imposes – and muddle together to create something live; something living and something new.

In the opening exchanges, Crouch’s hypnotist (dressed in a smartly sparkling waistcoat) feeds lines to a dazed and half-formed Father, this night played by Nick Holder. The meaning of that word hypnotist folds in on itself, as Crouch helps to bring this broken father back to, or into life: ‘You are…’ At one point, Crouch’s hypnotist feeds this line to a static father: ‘How free am I?’- and all the meanings of that line ripple right through us, hit a wall and bounce back onto the stage. How free is this father paralysed by grief?; how free is this actor drip fed by Crouch?; how free is Crouch, contained within the stage and the script, which he might have written but now controls him?

As the script slowly unfurls, the Father’s character and story materialises. Crouch the hypnotist switches a flick and the sound a quietly swooshing roadside fills the theatre. This is the site of the accident and is a place that the Father now visits frequently. Crouch tells the Father that every time this sound is heard, he will be transported back to this site of his sorrow. The crystalline power of theatre – the simple little flicks of switch that create a world that glows with purpose – is highlighted through this effect, but so too (and this is the double beauty of this piece) is the power that memory holds over us, and the way in which certain places will always mean certain things – will be frozen in time and significance forever – despite all that busy life that continues to rattle right by.

As the show progresses, the power between these two characters shifts and control over the performance is – weirdly – relinquished to the man who is very much not in control. Crouch’s hypnotic act continues but the father, operating on a different plane from all those ‘invisible’ participators who are so patently in Crouch’s control, begins to break the rules. As Crouch works through his tricks, The Father (played initially with quiet and disbelieving grief by Nick Holder and, later, slightly overdone despair) pushes the act further than Crouch can handle. He keeps his hands raised up in the air, stretching for something out of reach, long after Crouch has brought the act to a close. He stays crumpled on the floor long after Crouch has clicked his fingers - and the loneliness of grief burns off the stage. Here is a man who can no longer follow the script, who is left hunched and alone as normal life scurries on above his head.

The seams of performance are teased and clawed open and we, the audience, are squeezed and crushed alongside. But there are many moments, too, when this highly self-conscious show becomes just that; a self-conscious expression of ideas rather than the wonderful puffs of colour and fire that resulted from that early tinkering and thought. Crouch’s acting style is wilfully grating in places and, although that is no doubt meant to prod away at the limits of figurative performance, it really only chips away at the show. This is particularly marked in the moments that might’ve been pure and moving; those scenes in which the Father and his wife confront each other, desperately sad, in the middle of the night. Crouch adopts the strangest wail for these scenes (in which he plays the wife) and it’s hard not to laugh. Perhaps he doesn’t want us to fall for these scenes which can, of course, only be a representation of grief - but I’m not sure he wants us to laugh at them either.

The show gets a bit caught up in itself, chopping and chopping and cutting away, until we’re stuck in a web of endless possibilities that excite the head but not the heart. In short, it all becomes a little bit taxing and a little bit smug. But there are still enough scenes that dump us in a strange and frightening ‘half world’, where we can’t be sure what we’re seeing and feeling, or where those emotions are coming from. In one cruel moment, The Father – swept away by the hypnotist’s trance and caught up, perhaps, in the possibility of escape that theatre can offer – is convinced that he is naked and covered in shit. The quiet shock on Holder’s face, and the double humiliation of that exposure both buried in the script and asked of him right here in this moment, takes the breath away. Theatre is a very powerful, very personal and very special thing; we better use it wisely.   


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