The Man Who Planted Trees

Reviewed by Louise Jones
Puppet State Theatre Company
Reviewed at Studio, York Theatre Royal as part of Little Feet Festival
For ages 7+

There’s a fear with comedy aimed at young audiences that the jokes will be deliberately dumbed down. This risks audience engagement on all fronts, as both children and their parents lose interest in patronising, repetitive humour, like a character falling down repeatedly. Puppet State proves that companies definitely don’t need to resort to slapstick or fart jokes as they present a production filled with childlike wonder and silliness, not childish tedium.

The scene is set with sacking landscapes and French music flowing through the studio: we’re in provincial southern France, where storyteller Jean finds an old man planting acorns. It’s a simple tale, yet its moral of selfless kindness survives the threat of war and destruction just as it is sure to stay with the audience long after the play has ended.

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Puppet State’s production has been running for ten years now, but the play shows no sign of ageing. Rather like Bouvier’s forest, the performers Richard Medrington and Rick Conte seem comfortable and at ease with the story, and the occasional ad-lib reveals they’re still having fun with the tale. Medrington’s calm and collected Jean captivates the crowd with his gentle narration, while his delicate handling of issues such as war and death prove his flair for storytelling. His serene stage presence complements Conte’s excitable Dog perfectly.

A bundle of rags and enthusiasm, Dog captured my heart from the moment he popped up wordlessly from his basket. The use of Dog as comic relief as well as fellow storyteller is a clever move, keeping the play dynamic and creating an excellent repartee with Jean. He sounds like Tom Hanks and his style of joke delivery would fit right in with the Muppets, perfectly pitched to enchant and amuse all ages.

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My love for Dog aside (though really can anyone truly put their love for Dog aside?), everything about the show is delightful. The adaptation does well not to stretch out Jean Giono’s short narrative, but adds layers of texture to the story so we live Jean’s tale. The ability to smell lavender and mint on the air is so effective and enacted by such a small trick which transports the audience to Bouvier’s farm. The decision to keep Bouvier’s puppet silent serves his character’s outlook fantastically, whilst all around we see the effects of his efforts take place in simple landscape pieces and a layered soundtrack.

I don’t think I’ve left a play with a bigger smile for a long time, as all expectations were exceeded in this beautiful production. Medrington and Conte are excellent storytellers and entertainers, walking audiences through the wondrous tale of all the good one man (and his dog) can do.

Louise Jones likes writing plays with big musical numbers at the end and is part of a family-friendly improv troupe heading to the Great Yorkshire Fringe and Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer. You can find links to more of her reviews on her portfolio or by following @lweez_j.

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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