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Tree review at Campfield Market Hall, Manchester – ‘energetic but jumbled’

Alfred Enoch in Tree at Manchester International Festival. Photo: Marc Brenner

Music is playing as you enter the space. People are dancing and the room is bathed in purple light. A party is underway in this former Manchester market hall (MIF excels at infiltrating the city in this way, staging work in unconventional spaces). The mood is summery – but a cloud hangs over the production.

Tree has been at the centre of a dispute over authorship. Writers Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin have claimed that they were sidelined from the creative process and then not properly credited. The producers contest this. Statement has followed statement, but this hasn’t helped clarify things.

Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah are credited as co-creators of this version of the show; Kwei-Armah also directs the piece which is inspired by Elba’s 2014 Mi Mandela album, and which in turn was based on his experiences playing Nelson Mandela in the film Long Walk to Freedom.

Alfred Enoch plays Kaelo, a mixed-race man with no job and nothing solid in his life who, following the death of his mother, travels to South Africa with the intention of finding his father’s grave – and, presumably, better developing his sense of identity. There, he encounters his fierce white grandmother (Sinéad Cusack) and the half-sister he’s never met before (Joan Iyiola).

Alfred Enoch and the company of Tree at Manchester International Festival. Photo: Marc Brenner

There’s a degree of irony in the fact that the writing is the flimsiest thing about Tree. Some of the characters are napkin-thin and the plotting is as mechanical as the dialogue is predictable. Engaging though he is, Enoch’s Kaelo is essentially an amiable vessel. He spends much of the show being told things – about his family’s past and the legacy of apartheid – while demonstrating a naivety that doesn’t feel completely plausible for a man in his 30s. At one point he is winched above the stage to bear witness to events leading to his father’s death. He’s an onlooker in what is ostensibly his own story.

Cusack and Iyiola provide the production’s emotional heat and dramatic meat, as two angry, differently resilient women, while Patrice Naiambana brings warmth, humour and depth to the stock role of the wise old gardener who allows Kaelo to feel he is part of a larger narrative, one still unfolding.

What the production lacks in storytelling finesse, however, it makes up for in energy. Lighting designer Jon Clark floods the space with neon-bright colours. Choreographer Gregory Maqoma shapes both the dance sequences and the scenes of protest and unrest. The audience members, who are standing throughout, are invited to groove with the cast, and mobile phone torches become a field of stars.

This insistence on having a good time can jar with the scenes of violence, but the last image – designer Jon Bausor’s unifying tree – is joy-inducing and uncomplicatedly hopeful. Sadly, though, the circumstances of the show’s creation are likely to linger longer in the memory than the piece itself.

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Energetic but jumbled piece about one man's exploration of his South African heritage