Bella Loudon’s Family Tree is at its best when it is undergoing an experiment in form, exploring the representation of different versions of reality on stage as ghosts of the mind haunt the present. Loudon’s staging (presented by by Matatabi Productions) is put together with a stunning ease, too, and makes the whole experiment feel completely necessary and normalised. Which means that when it tries to delve too deeply into emotional arcs and witty jokes, it dips a little by comparison.
Jodie and Julian live with The Cat (Kafka) and, it seems, are relatively happy. But Jodie has a secret which she’s not telling anyone: her Ideal Man inhabits her reality too, confusing matters when her boyfriend comes in. Things become even more complicated when Julian realises The Cat can speak English, but only to him. It’s a fantastic comic setup, and leads to a wonderfully rendered climax at the top of the play.
Loudon writes characters with sharp brio, creating quick, overlapping dialogue which makes complete sense under the circumstances and is shown off brilliantly in the final scenes. But sometimes it feels like she’s searching a bit too hard for a joke, like when Julian realises he is speaking in song lyrics. Rather than letting the situations do the work, we get over-so-slightly expository gags.
The cast cope well with this pacey text and steer clear of playing for laughs. Kate Craggs as Jodie and Tim Dorsett as Julian have a sparky, vibrant chemistry, with Dave Burnett as the Ideal Man chipping in to allow a slightly more romantic tone to take hold. Mathew Wenham smartly plays the Cat completely honestly, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world that a cat can speak to humans. One of the strongest aspects of the production is Sayako Makino’s design, made up of moveable gauze screens and wooden blocks, meaning the scene is always shifting and scene changes become a thing of beauty. In fact, this design feels incredibly versatile and could easily be used as a blueprint for future designs, especially when it’s able to be used for such nimble ideas like the representation of a conveyor belt of thoughts.
Family Tree is an intriguing piece of new writing performed with clarity and truth, and though it’s a bit too focused on Young People Having Relationship Problems for my liking, the formal experimentation turns what could be a pedestrian play into one which is genuinely interesting. If she keeps pushing boundaries like this, Loudon is one to watch.
Family Tree is at Pleasance Courtyard until 26 August. For more information and tickets visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.