Puppet State Theatre Company’s The Man Who Planted Trees has received such glowing reviews in its lengthy tour that, given the chance as part of York Theatre Royal’s Takeover09 festival, I just had to go and see it.
Surely a puppet show, however good, with however many jokes aimed at the adults, could never really be appreciated as much as all that by an audience of theatre critics who could, you know, follow Chekhov and Brecht and stuff?
I stand truly, humbly and utterly corrected. The Man Who Planted Trees is a neatly packaged hour of amongst the finest theatre you’ll see. It’s charming but never cloyingly so, gently didactic but never preachy, self-referencing in an endearing, never pretentious way.
It also feels deeply personal, and not just because of the intimate setting; it’s the two actors’ seamless ability to respond to their audience, an ability which is tested to its limits at this particular showing as, for example, restless toddlers accidentally storm the stage and an audience member turns out to be allergic to an aromatherapy oil wafted around the room.
With an audience so determined to tear down the ‘fourth wall’, it’s lucky that this show never tries to pretend there’s one there in the first place…
The humour is pitched perfectly throughout. There’s no attempts to appease the adults with knowing innuendo or the kids with overstated slapstick – it’s just sharp, universal humour, and genuinely side-splitting stuff at times.
At the heart of the play though, is a deeply poignant narrative, taken from Jean Giono’s story of the same name. It really is what so many other narratives claim to be: touching, heart-warming and inspirational.
Add to this already heady mix a beautifully constructed set and puppets, a few giant fans for wafting evocative scented oils around the audience… and it adds up to a flawless show for kids and adults alike. This really couldn’t come more highly recommended.