Music & Lyrics by Oliver Mills. Book & Lyrics by Rachel Mann
On Saturday afternoon, I saw the second-ever performance of The Tree of War. I mention this because – well, have you ever been in at the start of something big, and known it was the start of something big? That’s where I was at on Saturday afternoon.
The Tree of War is a musical about life in the trenches in WWI. Written, scored and directed by a poet priest and a twenty-year-old music student, it was a community theatre project at St Nicholas’ Church in Burnage, funded by Manchester City Council. A précis: Grandpa Bert tells his granddaughter the story of his time in the trenches. That’s it; that’s the whole story. And what a marvellous, rousing, moving story it was.
I had better declare an interest here: my son, Alex Cosgriff, played Young Bert – ladies’ man; loyal son; good friend; cannon fodder. He played him well: his singing was wonderful; he really can act; I burst with pride. But he wasn’t the whole play – a strong community choir and a good amateur cast was headed by Mike Law as Grandpa Bert: he was warm and cosy, sad and regretful. Sam Gilliatt as Bert’s friend Greville has a voice with the sweetest tone, and his duet with Alex was a thing of beauty. Jamie Rahman played Dougie McBride as a dour Scot; with a gorgeous voice, his solo sent shivers down many a spine.
The exploration of life in the trenches was well conceived – boredom, fear, letters to and from home; and the drinking…ah! the drinking! The best number among a raft of great numbers was The Lads’ Drinking Song: bawdy, irreverent, rousing and huge fun.
The staging was excellent. The tree of the title was out in the foyer, and that’s where the action began. The audience stood to watch until directed to move into the trench area, which was set almost completely in the round. We were in the trenches with the lads and shared their laughter and tears; their hopes and fears. We could see their sweat and almost smell their breath.
In any play about the Great War, of course, the lads inevitably go over the top. They disappeared to the sounds of mortar shells, through smoke and noise; and when it was finished and Young Bert lay huddled, terrified, guilty, sobbing, he had the whole audience riveted. Tears for all of those boys flowed like their blood, and didn’t stop until after the final, whole ensemble’s rendition, specially arranged by Oliver, of Jerusalem. As I fruitlessly wiped my own tears I heard a woman behind me say to her friend, ‘I can’t stop crying!’
If I have a criticism of The Tree of War, it is that it needs another twenty minutes and at least one more song – possibly a ballad for Young Bert – because it will have trouble getting to the West End otherwise. And believe me, this is a play that deserves a wide audience. If Oliver and Rachel don’t take it to Edinburgh next year, they’re mad. They could take it at this length and then extend it when it gets picked up. Look out for Oliver Mills because he is a massive talent. To write such music and direct with such flair at his age…words fail me.
After the show, I went up to congratulate Oliver. I think I frightened him a little because I wanted to throw my arms around him and hug him to death; I settled for grabbing both of his hands and refusing to let them go while I raved about what I’d just witnessed. I understand the impulse of the woman who clutched Alex’s arm and said, ‘I don’t usually grab strangers but I want to be able to say I touched you before you were famous.’
I want to be able to say I reviewed Rachel Mann’s and Oliver Mills’ premiere production of The Tree of War before it was a massive worldwide hit.
You read it here first.