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The Dummy Tree, by Conor Mitchell

Monday, 27 September, 2010

London Festival Fringe – Tristan Bates Theatre – 24-28 Aug and 31 Aug-4 Sep 2010

The stage is blank all except for a park bench, placed at a diagonal to the front of the stage, and a large tree festooned with notes, children’s dummies and ribbons.  There is a dark blue light over the tree to highlight it in the dimly lit space.

The tree is The Dummy Tree of the title of the play.  The Dummy Tree is a tree somewhere in a small town.  It is where people hang their baby’s dummies on, after they have persuaded them to part with this comforting treat.  Dummies and notes have been plastered over this tree for years and it has become a piece of art showing the history of the town.  It also shows the many children who have grown up there.

The story is about a young mum who makes a hard decision when she finds she cannot cope with her little baby.  She comes to the tree to think things through and talk to her son.  She rationalises things, tells him all she wants and makes up her mind about what she will do.

The majority of the play is sung.  The play itself is not very clear.  It revolves around a young mum talking to her baby on the park bench while a group of young people join her and discuss an imminent wedding.  It is not until near the end that it is clear that the young mum and the baby are a memory from the past.  The young people from the present relate to her.  It does seem, throughout the play, that they are simply ignoring this woman in distress with a baby.  This is especially the case when she chucks the baby on the floor and they do not take any notice, as if this is a regular occurrence in their area.

The mum prematurely takes the dummy from her baby and tells him not to be nervous.  He is not yet a year old but apparently this is the ideal time to stop giving babies their dummies.  Young men and women enter wearing wedding clothes and discuss the groom’s nerves.  Various bridesmaids and guests enter and exit with various stories to tell and advice to give.  They are quite crass at times and just talk about drinking, smoking and other vices.

The mum sings well with touching emotion.  The groom and his best man sing well in cockney accents and make some amusing comments and observations.  The groom acts well throughout the play and you feel for him in his situation and want him to resolve it all and come out happy at the other end.  A nice surprise is the groom’s sister.  She enters near the end and reveals a beautiful clear singing voice.  Chris de Wilde’s design is simple yet effective.  The tree is impressive and the attention to detail is appreciated.

Conor Mitchell’s writing is not nice to hear in this instance.  The young people are given all the stereotypes you could think of and it is horrible to see them portrayed in this way yet again.  Marriage is compared to ‘sexual suicide’.  One bridesmaid is called ‘Binge’.  One other is told to stop doing something because she looks “..like a handicapped herring”.  Surprise surprise, another bridesmaid holds a bottle of spirits in her hand, one she just happens to keep in her bag.  A final insult is when they answer yes and no using ‘woofs’ and ‘quacks’.  Sexual diseases, lewd remarks and pure silliness fill the gaps.  It ends with one of the crass bridesmaids taking her old dummy, one that has been hanging there for years, from the tree and places it in her mouth.  Try to picture this if it was real and …yes, there you have it…that little lurch coming from the stomach.

The Dummy Tree is what it is.  It could be good if the young people were portrayed positively.  However, as it is, it is like the old dummy taken from the tree.  It makes you cringe, wince and feel just a bit sick.

Cast Credits: Ben Boskovic.  Richard Hodgson.  Kayleigh McKnight.  Katie Spencer.  Emma Tansley.  Rebecca Turner.  Michael Wells.

Company Credits: Music, book and lyrics – Conor Mitchell.  Director – Stuart Harvey.  Musical Director – Chris Huntley.  Designer – Chris de Wilde.

© Chantal Pierre-Packer

Reviewed Saturday 28 August 2010

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