St Nicholas Church, Burnage, Manchester
The First World War is a tremendously emotive subject and Oliver Mills’ and Rachel Mann’s The Tree of War, receiving its World premiere in this suburban Burnage church, explores the theme with a depth of sophistication not usually associated with an amateur production. It’s a tremendously ambitious project, utilising an ensemble cast, a live band, an ingenious set and some startling pyrotechnics (at one point clods of earth actually rain down into the audience!).
The story begins in 1986 with the declaration of war in the Falklands. Anna (Lucy Smith), a young girl living in Burnage, is upset that her favourite ‘story tree’ is about to be cut down and asks her Grandfather, Bert (Mike Law), to tell her about his experiences in the First World War, something he has never spoken of before. We then go back in time to witness young Bert (Alex Cosgriff) and his best friend, Greville (Sam Gilliat) enlisting to fight for their country. They soon find themselves in France biding their time until they go ‘over the top,’ and exchanging letters with their loved ones back home. But the tragedy of the Somme, when 20,000 young men died in one day of fighting, looms ever closer…
“Serious’ musicals are notoriously hard to pull off, so it’s to the company’s credit that they do an exemplary job here. There’s a wide range of styles on offer, from wistful, plaintive ballads to lusty, marching songs. In the first half, a section of knockabout comedy in the trenches falls a little flat and feels like a temporary misstep, but the momentum is soon regained with a series of soldier songs exuberantly led by Harry Cooper (Will Spence), that have the audience clapping along, while the expertly paced second half never flags for a moment. There are some delightful set pieces here: a sequence set at a Women’s Fellowship meeting is beautifully choreographed and the delightful harmonising gives the female actors a real chance to shine; Scottish hard man Dougie (Jamie Rahman) gives a sweet rendition of ‘Being A Lad,’ and it’s a stony individual indeed who won’t be moved to tears (as I was) by the heartbreaking climax.
Those who’d like to catch this show need to act quickly; it comes to the end of its five night run on the 19th of September.