The Tulip Tree – Review

The Tulip Tree by Oliver Michell (7)

Oliver Michell’s The Tulip Tree is a play about a young man who falls in love with a woman and he thinks she likes him back but, really, she doesn’t like him all that much.

That’s pretty much it.

It’s hard to think of anyone – you, me, any figure from history – who this hasn’t happened to. There are many such stories with horribly tragic endings. The spurned might go crazy, become monsters. Most of us just move on.

So why write a play about former Conservative and Ulster Unionist MP, poet, linguist and classical scholar John Enoch Powell?

What makes Powell’s early failed romance so important? In what way did it affect his later life, loves and politics?

Don’t go to South Kensington’s Drayton Arms Theatre looking for an answer in the Oriel Theatre Company’s production because you’ll leave none the wiser.

Contrary to what we think we know about a certain infamous speech, it’s hard to argue that Powell became a ‘monster’. It’s also pretty unlikely he was a Satanist, sorry Daily Mail.

There are no mad revelations about his behaviour – Barbara (Helen Reuben) just wasn’t that into it because Powell was a bit miserable. It didn’t even end particularly tragically. A few years later he married someone else and had a couple of kids.

The programme tells us that during their ‘courtship’, Barbara used to fall asleep during Powell’s speeches. Seems an odd choice of era and subject for a play.

The audience at press night was sparse and I’m not sure this was entirely down to the annoying, and I’m sure unplanned, clash with the latest political party leaders’ debate. It’s just hard to tell who this play is aimed at.

There’s more than enough political theatre going on in London right now in the run up to the election, and if you want a love story, who knows, or cares, enough about Enoch Powell to care about a woman he had a crush on in the ‘40s?

Powell’s earlier, and later, life and career are rather fascinating. Speaking Greek by the age of five, Powell was Professor of Ancient Greek by his mid 20s. There are rumours of a love affair with another man at Cambridge.

A phenomenal linguist, he was learning a twelfth language by the time of his death at the age of 85.

Powell served in the intelligence corp during WW2. He was a Minister for Health, and a Shadow Defence Minister, ultimately dismissed by Edward Heath after the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, accused by The Times of inciting racial hatred.

Alexander Shenton plays him as a shifty, nervous, almost Rain Main-like savant, socially awkward and unable to relate to anyone around him.

Shut up like Scrooge in his freezing rented room, working on Christmas day, it’s hard to believe such an unlikable man was ever elected MP.

It’s an interesting performance and I’ve no doubt Shenton’s a great actor given the material, but Powell’s so weird and pathetic, you’re just not rooting for him to win Barbara’s hand.

Are we even supposed to root for him? This is Enoch Powell, remember. The politician who later had rather unsavoury views on immigration, dressed up with fancy words and white respectability.

Why are we watching a play about an unlikable man, who later became an even more unlikable man, trying to convince ourselves we care about whether he gets the girl?

Piers Hunt and Peter Wicks do a fine job playing childish comedy toffs Paul and Edward. A more vicious, competitive rivalry between Paul and Enoch over Barbara could have been rather enjoyable.

Barbara is nice and all, but nowhere near interesting enough to be worshipped in the way Powell does. When he says that he feels “everything he’s worked for so far in his life has been so he’s good enough for her,” you wonder why a man with such high standards bothered.

Tessa Wood is rather enjoyable as Barbara’s snobbish aunt, all plummy tones and disapproving manner, while Bernard O’Sullivan as Major Monkton is given so little stage time you wonder why the character was written in the first place.

The Tulip Tree is the work of a man who’s interested enough in a controversial dead politician’s life to write a play about him, but has unfortunately chosen the dullest period in that life to dramatise.

The Tulip Tree – The Love Story of J Enoch Powell runs at the Drayton Arms, which could do with better sound-proofing between the theatre and door to the gent’s loos, until April 25.

★★stars.

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