Image by Daniel Alexander Harris
“The Oak Tree is the debut script from young author Ellie Deans, and it’s an impressive start to her writing career.”
There’s a lot to catch your eye about this brand-new play – but the first thing you’ll notice is its expansive set. Astro-turfing the whole Bedlam stage, it impeccably evokes the eponymous Oak Tree, a fading outdoor café in an equally fading part of London. With its rustic fence and crunching gravel, the Oak Tree is both timeless and reassuringly familiar… but a man called Mark Duggan has just died in Tottenham, and in the course of a summer’s night, everything will change.
The Oak Tree is the debut script from young author Ellie Deans, and it’s an impressive start to her writing career. The story’s revealed through well-paced dialogue, free from clumsy exposition; an occasional tendency to labour plot points is the only notable flaw. Although it’s a political play, the tone is balanced and genuinely thought-provoking, and the characters are refreshingly nuanced too.
There’s both cleverness and chutzpah in the play’s construction, with a frothily entertaining first half yielding after the interval to a far darker tone. Early highlights include a set-piece comic misunderstanding – which would stand scrutiny alongside many a TV sitcom – and a gloriously toe-curling business pitch, delivered in fearlessly hammy style by actor Robbie Nicol. There are subtler motifs too: a touching bond between brother and sister, the burden of untold secrets, and the piquant realisation that the things we love can’t last forever.
But the script loses its way a little when it confronts its motivating theme, the riots of August 2011. What caused the disorder? Who should we blame? Is there room for understanding, or must we simply condemn? The play touches on these important questions, but it doesn’t have time to explore many answers. Deans is at her strongest when she’s pursuing a simpler agenda: illustrating how that summer’s shocking events tore families and communities apart in the parts of London left to deal with the aftermath on their own.
She’s aided in that task by a strong and confident cast. Will Fairhead plays lascivious rich kid James with considerable relish, successfully drawing just a hint of likeability from his endlessly crass character. Ella Rogers has the family matriarch nailed, bringing a gut-wrenching sense of tragedy to one emotional scene, while Casey Enochs puts in a finely-balanced performance as the other-worldly Annie – perhaps the most intriguing of Deans’ creations, and certainly the most saddening.
The Oak Tree undulates through a landscape of moods – from uplands of optimism to bleak valleys of despair – and at times, it’s deeply cynical. But it’s defined throughout by a gentle, affectionate humour, and by characters complex enough to make you care. Both playwright and cast deserve considerable credit for this engaging, inventive production.