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Jane Hughes Writer, editor, yoga teacher

Brighton Festival Theatre Review - An Oak Tree

The Independent, May 2006

The title of this show from experimental dramatist and performer Tim Crouch comes from an art work: in the Seventies artist Michael Craig-Martin put a glass of water on a shelf and explained in text how he had transformed it into an oak tree. The premise - that when you say something is something else, then through an act of projection that's what it becomes - is an interesting one. It clearly makes sense when actors become characters in a play. But can Crouch convince us that such transformations also happen instantaneously as he dips in and out of different layers of reality?

In this two-hander he becomes a provincial stage hypnotist whose act has hit the rocks since he killed a girl in a car accident. At times - as he pulls back from the action or delves deeper into it - Crouch is also the writer and director of the play, and the girl's grieving mother. In each performance, a different actor, who has never seen or read the script before, plays the father of the dead girl.

Knowing that the hypnotist has killed his daughter, the father, Andy, comes to the show and steps on stage when Crouch asks for volunteers. His life has been shattered but he's looking for answers rather than vengeance. Since the accident, the hypnotist has lost his ability to make a convincing suggestion but Andy has transformed a tree at the scene of the accident into his daughter. His wife accuses him of turning his daughter into an idea, Andy doesn't seem to know what is real anymore.

Crouch makes a devastatingly good hypnotist on the verge of a nervous breakdown - convincingly shallow in his seedy, bingo hall delivery, and agitatedly stumbling over his words. When he recognises Andy - after callously humiliating him- his outer shell crumples to reveal his inner guilt.

The second actor is not expected to improvise. Rather, he follows Crouch's on-stage or whispered directions throughout the play - whether he's asked to read from the script, move around or repeat lines of dialogue. This is probably deliberately disconcerting, though it can be offputting. At one point Crouch reads both actors' dialogue, with each line prefaced by "You say..." or "I say". He seems to be simultaneously distancing us from the characters while still demonstrating the power of projection.

In the performance I saw, the Andy described to the audience as 6ft 2in was played by a rather shorter actor Toby Jones. Jones didn't suddenly become that Andy, but he did convince as a bereaved father who was lost, troubled and confused. There are some good comic moments, as when Crouch pull back from the play to see how his actor is doing. "It's very well written," responds the actor, reading from his script. However while this an undeniably clever 60 minute performance, it offers more to philosophise about than to feel.

An Oak Tree is at the Pavilion Theatre, Brighton Dome until May 20. Brighton Festival box office: 01273 709 709,