"Five stars are not enough"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 16/11/16

It was a privilege to be at the premiere of Chris Fogg’s remarkable ‘Tree House’ at Taunton’s Brewhouse Theatre. Before the performance, Chris spoke of the inspiration behind the epic poem which became ‘Tree House’; his eloquent story of love and dreams, promises and betrayals, hope and redemption. Once a teacher, Chris met a pupil who, as an adult, operated the bulldozer that destroyed his childhood den, clearing the land for housing he would never be able to afford. The story stuck and over time became a poem which became the script, telling a saga of three children and their different journeys into adulthood. Chris’s use of language is subtle and true to natural speech rhythms. We are not self-consciously listening to a poem – the verse is so beautifully crafted it resonates deeply within the listener as we become immersed in the lives of Robbie, Jane and Alan.

Robbie’s shocking story is told in the third person, without sensation or cliché. This restraint intensifies the emotional power of the narrative, and enables the listener to reflect on the values that drive modern life. So many questions are posed with a devastating simplicity. They continue, insistent, long after the ingenious curtain call, when the cast of three evoke the many characters they shared with us. What does success look like? Who benefits and who suffers when housing is less about a roof over one’s head and more about investment and profit? Who does society honour with titles, wealth and awards? What do we want from the military? How do we treat soldiers when they return from war, wired to kill or be killed, and no longer fit in? How do those of us who have plenty enjoy the fruits of our labours when others, just as hard-working, if not more so, have so little?

Such a profound care for humanity has produced a stunning piece of original theatre. ‘Tree House’ is lovingly crafted, with compassion, intelligence and humour, by a very talented team. The three performers are outstanding. Robert Durbin as Robbie finds his real family in the Army, but one error, under unimaginable pressure, results in a devastating descent from grace. Robert Durbin’s emotional range does full justice to the complexity of the outsider who quickly stops wanting to belong when belonging only brings pain and betrayal. My companion felt the poignancy of Robbie’s situation was particularly intense coming so close after Remembrance Sunday.

Sarah Lawrie’s Jane seems to quickly outgrow her childhood friend, but the heart is not as biddable as we like to think, and her love for Robbie, when both were children, runs like a thread into adulthood, ever-present even as she marries, builds a loving, stable family and seeks for professional integrity. Sarah also plays a host of other characters; including Cob, Robbie’s comrade-in-arms; Mirek, a Polish construction worker; a social worker and glamorous, ambitious, successful Amina . Sarah and Anthony Cozens, whose main role was Alan, give a master-class in the delineation of contrasting characters and carefully-observed accents. Anthony shows us how the boy who Robbie and Jane left out of their games grows up to scoop the glittering prizes society uses to reward entrepreneurs and wealth generators. I have no doubt that Alan is a passionate believer in the trickle-down effect – one of the many devices whereby the fabulously wealthy justify their affluence. A change of jacket, and Anthony is Khaleel, Jane’s quiet, courteous, academic husband, then Robbie’s philosophic C/O and many other memorable characters.

The fourth performer is accomplished cellist Sarah Moody, whose work with the renowned troupe The Devil’s Violin is deservedly respected. Her compositions illuminate settings as diverse as Afghanistan and rural England, drawing on the music of both countries. The witty use of the ‘Match of the Day’ theme is thoroughly appreciated, and the Polish/Ukrainian folk song ‘Hej Sokoly’ is heart-breaking.

So much careful attention to detail. The significance of Robbie’s gradually revealed tattoo. Amina’s killer heels. Alan and Amina’s magazine-cover. Mayou Trikerioti’s evocative and versatile set and costumes that effectively define the myriad characters we meet along the way, without involving elaborate changes or short-changing us visually. The beautifully illustrated section boards by Richard Manders , each representing a different rung on the property ladder – (although I thought Board Two anticipated and thereby somewhat diminished the shock to come around Robbie’s father.) Such a tiny quibble.

The children’s journey away from the tree house, and their return to it as adults, is a truly compelling story. Such fine, intelligent writing and brilliant acting deserves to be celebrated. ‘Tree House’ is on tour until early December. Don’t miss it.

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