Angels Among the Trees, Playhouse, Nottingham

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The Independent Culture

It was for Giles Croft's Nottingham Playhouse that Jonathan Holloway wrote Because it's There, his icy stage work about Mallory and Irvine's doomed 1924 Everest expedition, which impacted so strongly when staged three seasons ago.

It was for Giles Croft's Nottingham Playhouse that Jonathan Holloway wrote Because it's There, his icy stage work about Mallory and Irvine's doomed 1924 Everest expedition, which impacted so strongly when staged three seasons ago. Coming close to the recovery of George Mallory's bones and haversack, first spotted by a Chinese climber, it struck a real nerve.

Holloway is at it again now, revisiting another tale of hapless endurance: the saga of 87 settlers who battled forth from Missouri in 1846 with high hopes of a prosperous future out West. Misled by bad advice, they hit the mountains at the worst time, becoming trapped in snowstorms. Half died. Several who survived did so by resorting to cannibalism.

It's a graphic, ghoulish tale, and as the snowy crisis descends and nerves fray, audience involvement visibly increased. Why? Well, it starts weakly. Actors swap characters without visible outward change. The opening speeches are grotty and the accents are a grotesque mishmash. Initial word projection is appalling.

But this unconvincing startgradually gets put right: by Tony Bell - grittily terse as Sheffielder William Foster; by Stephen Lucas's moral pig-in-the-middle William Eddy; by a powerful killing; and by the dramatic irruption of wagons as prairie dustbowl yields to mountain foothills. It's here that glorious design uplifts the show: an eerie suspended mountain backdrop and icy white sheeting that - backed by terrifying snow machine - induces a powerful claustrophobic feel.

Angels wears its morality slightly clumsily, partly because it lacks memorable lines: most early aphorisms are clichés. Yet what comes across increasingly superbly is the high voltage tensions between this mix of characters - savoury, unsavoury, sanctimonious, rough-and-ready - and the appalling conditions. Several characters stand out strongly: Chris Porter as the forthright leader; Dominic Letts as a less than moral rescuer; Lucas as the frightened Reed boy; and Jonathan Melia - complete with abysmal 'Allo 'Allo German accent - as Keiserberg.

Still, dispel the doubts: Angels Among the Trees evolves into, at best, a gripping drama, and Giles Croft's staging is a sock in the eye and a visual treat. Just sit downstairs - and take your hearing aid.

To 19 June (0115-941 9419; www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk)

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