Burn my Heart, photo by Oliver Lamford

Having built up years worth of performance techniques and shows, Trestle Theatre are known for their extensive work using masks. Now however, the company firmly rooted in their ‘Trestle Arts Base’ in St Albans are removing the mask and venturing into territories unknown with their new work formed under the banner of ‘Trestle Unmasked’ under artistic direction of Emily Gray. In Burn My Heart Trestle team up with Blindeye, whose work aims to explore human rights issues through performance to deliver an adaption of the book of the same name by Beverley Naidoo.

Set in the uprising of Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950’s, Burn My Heart is a look into the colonial entrapment of African citizens under the control of the British Army as they wrestle against the right and wrongs of traditions over honor of serving the white masters. Conveying a sense of Africa in the middle of a studio theatre such as the New Diorama as no easy task, yet thankfully Anoushka Athique’s design engulfs the space with rich earthly colours and textured cloth similar to that of the deep red African soil. Coupled with John Purkis’ lighting design and Juwon Ogungbe music we are instantly transported and immersed in the vibrancy and sadly danger that Kenya has to offer.

Burn My Heart is the world seen through the eyes of Matthew, the son of a rich but fair and just white land owner Mr Grayson. Similar to his fathers equal appreciation for those who work for him, Matthew befriends Mugu, a kitchen boy on his estate. Yet it is when Matthew brings home a boy from his school, Lance – that their friendship is thrown apart, and the playful games of ‘Hunt the Mau Mau’ soon reflect that of the adult world around them.

Under the direction of Oliver Jones, this small ensemble weave the story of the uprising of the Mau Mau and the tearing apart of families through rhythmical songs, physical theatre, and the multiple roles of characters of varying races and stature. Whilst Burn My Heart is a wonderful portrayal of Africa and the cast deliver superb performances, I couldn’t help but to want Rina Vergano’s adaption to settle for a moment to allow the story to fully develop. Of course, there was much to tell and the episodic nature of the scenes allowed for an overall sense to be conveyed, but I longed for the characters to blossom before morphing into others.

If you set aside the fast timings of the scenes, there is much to admired and loved within Burn My Heart. The ensemble are phenomenal at switching between roles, supplying the musical backdrop and transforming Athique versatile staging from scene to scene. Lowri James as Matthew is wholeheartedly every bit of a curious young boy who struggles with her characters morals against the peer pressure. James is simply superb and her versatility between a young boy and the older characters is conveyed perfectly. Equally Gehane Strehler as Lance the brutal and boisterous young boy is precise and direct in her portrayal. The constant switching between nose scratching and hands in pockets whilst finding it difficult to stay still is a sight we’ve all seen in young boys, and Strehler has it pitch perfect.

One thing that takes me aback in Burn My Heart is the level of versatility that the cast have. The transformation from female to male, child to adult and white to black whilst seems impossible, is achieved with wondrous outcomes. Sam Parks, Christian Dixon, and Lydia Gitachu complete the ensemble and offer plenty of finely tuned characters to be enthralled with. Jones direction is adventurous too for a touring production, and makes full use of the design. It is playful, imaginative and yet conveys the right serious tone that is needed in the horror of the Mau Mau uprising.

Conveying a sense of Africa, and the breakdown of relationships between white and black inhabitants within Kenya is no easy task. Yet Trestle and Blindeye have achieved a real sense of the life and endangerment from those involved, transporting the audience through chilling and playful atmospheres. Above all, Burn My Heart has an ensemble of true talent and versatility, one that I will gladly watch again next time they bring Africa into London.

Burn My Heart is on tour until 13th November, details on dates and locations can be found on the Trestle website.