They Have Oak Trees In North Carolina @ Tristan Bates Theatre, London

cast list
Janet Amsden
Simon Harrison
Hilton McRae

directed by
Paul Robinson
Recent events have given this new play by Sarah Wooley an unsettling relevance. Written before the disappearance of Madeline McCann and indeed before reappearance of the abducted Natascha Kampusch in Austria, it has uncanny parallels with those events.

A Theatre 503 co-production, They Have Oak Tress In North Carolina tells the story of Eileen and Ray, a married couple in late middle age whose young son disappeared over twenty years ago while they were on a holiday in Florida. Now, some two decades later, an American man turns up on their doorstep claiming to be Patrick, the boy they lost.

This man knows details about their lives that only Patrick could know and Eileen is convinced from the outset that this interloper is her son, finally returned to her. Ray however does not, cannot, believe the mans story and is infuriated that this person has turned up in their lives, playing on their private pain.

What follows is an intense and emotionally draining ninety minutes of writing. Eileen gets herself ready to tell the press, to tell the world, that her son is alive and well, that, after all these years, he has come back to her, while Ray seethes in the background, refusing to join in what he believes to be a vile charade. As they argue, revelations about the past start to leak out. It turns out theirs was not a happy marriage even before Patrick went missing, was in fact on the brink of collapse, and that they have been bound together for over twenty years by their loss and little else, frozen through not knowing whether their son is alive or dead.

The writing does a very good job of articulating this limbo, this hell of uncertainty and Wooley has written some incredibly tense scenes between the three characters. The punch of Paul Robinsons production does dwindle a little towards the end though, when the need to provide resolution pushes events towards the implausible.

Hilton McRae and Janet Amsden, as Ray and Eileen, are both superb, exuding years of pent up bitterness, frustration and pain. While Simon Harrison, as the man who may well be their son, provides for the majority of the play at least a calm centre around which they can waltz, dredging up past misdemeanours and flinging accusations at one another.

This is a taut and gripping production, and though it wasnt intended, one impossible to watch without thinking of where the McCanns will be some twenty years on from now, wondering when and how and if their story will end.

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