On the 9th of March, the Lakeside Theatre was treated to seventy minutes of fun, raw meaning, and pure theatrical talent, courtesy of The Tree.
Warm yellow light dappled the stage like sunlight through leaves on a summer afternoon. Two twigs lay to the side as though they’d just been played with, and at the centre was The Tree itself, standing tall and proud.
The play follows the reunion of farmgirl Lottie and city businessman Andrew after thirty years of trial-by-adulthood. It’s seventy minutes are spent reliving the countless games they devised as children and exploring how their paths have veered in distinctly opposite directions.
Students might recognise The Tree as the winner of the University of Essex’s Rewrite Festival of 2022, where writer and director Will Tennison beat the four shortlisted entries to the opportunity to extend his play, developing the relationship between his two characters further than ever before.
Lottie, played by resident Sugarplum Fairy Natalie Heath, gave the character a warm and bright spark that made it all the easier to empathise with her as the twists of her life were recounted. She stands in defiantly sweet contrast to Andrew, played by Ena Chiara Teglovic, who is failing to convince himself—and Lottie— of his own happiness.
The pair were certainly engaging enough to carry the show as its only two characters. Physical theatre always provides that extra element of challenge to any production, but Natalie and Chiara managed to convey cannon balls, pots, pans, and doorways with ease. These techniques also worked beautifully to accompany the imagination that’s always required when playing as a child; it made the show feel real.
“The Tree is a play about appreciating the imagination of childhood and the constraints of growing up.”
With his involvement in various projects, and more recently as the production manager of TAS’s Nutcracker panto (which Chiara co-directed), Will Tennison is someone most in the Theatre Arts Society on campus will recognise. Most notable of his other works is his direction of One Man Down, written by Ed Lee and based on the true story of a cancer survivor for a charity showcase back in November. Even then, Will was commended on his use of sound by the writer, and it is a skill that I feel is quickly becoming his trademark.
While Lottie and Andrew played, the soundtrack reflected their story with clever lyrics and distinct feels. Sound effects for cannon balls, aliens, and storks’ wings punctuated scenes of battling pirates, discovering new life, and dreams of creating a family.
Music also made the transition between scenes smooth and effortless. I enjoyed the effect of Lottie and Andrew silently talking and laughing while a beautiful song played over them, seemingly hours passing by, imitating any heartfelt montage from the big screen.
The playful scenes mirrored raw discussions between Lottie and Andrew, echoing ideas of a happy family, travelling far from home, and defeating the challenges of life.
Will’s inspirations explored these themes too, such as the 1943 children’s story The Little Prince, following a young prince as he travels across planets while addressing themes of loneliness, friendship, love, and loss. Will also referenced BoJack Horseman in his director’s note, which particularly mirrored Andrew’s character with a disappointment in life and in search of happiness.
At times, the play felt almost too packed with meaning for just seventy minutes. While the growth of the characters’ relationship was nicely set up from the first moment of their reunion, the ending felt nearly too rushed after the steady development of the last hour. If only because I would have wanted to see more.
And yet, it was a play that perfectly balanced fun with the more serious themes of life. As Will wrote in his director’s note, “The Tree is a play about appreciating the imagination of childhood and the constraints of growing up.”
It’s easy to say that the play was and will continue to be a success; Will is taking his show on the road to his hometown of Harlow, and he has plans to bring it to other festivals around the country.
The Tree was created in memory of Will’s grandfather, Terrence Tennison, whose “60+ years of marriage was a constant inspiration and example of what love is.”