Given the titles of Sleeping Trees’ manic comedies Western? and Sci-Fi?, you’d be forgiven for expecting a pair of formal satires packed with in-jokes, niche references to classic westerns and sci-fi movies, and self-satisfied deconstructions of the eponymous genres. But the three writer-performers of the Sleeping Trees collective – Joshua George Smith, John Woodburn and James Dunnell-Smith – are canny enough to know how stale that would be. They opt instead for broad-brushstroke humour, combining slapstick, gurning, straightforward but often brilliant gags, and very impressive sound design to deliver an exuberant, unflagging evening of entertainment.
The plays, such as they are, have the frenetic silliness and brio of farce, but they’re not really farces – the situations are too whimsical to be excruciating, and explode too quickly to allow the building of any comedic tension. Rather, the appeal lies in the chemistry of the three leads. Dunnell-Smith is the zany one: his hyperactive jaw and eyebrows complement the lability of his voice, which can rise with little notice from a tremulous Brian Blessed-esque basso profundo to a quavering pantomime treble. Woodburn, who times a mean pause and is no slouch in the facial expression department, frequently uses his body to very funny effect. The round face, large eyes and incredulous demeanour of George Smith make him the perfect straight man – though he plays his fair share of wackos and weirdos with aplomb.
Each play contains about a dozen characters – perhaps a couple of dozen if you count the inanimate objects brought to life by the three actors. There is no traditional mime in the plays, but since there are no sets or props either, it’s up Dunnell-Smith, Woodburn and Smith to concoct entire and disparate environments using only their bodies and hands. They deserve much credit for creating, out of thin air, sets we can really visualise and objects that are instantly or surreally identifiable – a hoverboard, a strip-club pole, hangmen’s nooses, fire, asparagus, and, in a particularly brilliant piece of physical comedy by Woodburn, tumbleweed. We’re also given narratives we can follow: both plays loosely follow the maturation of one character as he comes to realise his destiny in the face of villainous dastards.
The sound design is impeccable: the trio clearly wrote the script with tight audio (and occasionally visual) cues in mind, and in the rare instances of misalignment the actors ad lib skilfully. Towards the end of Western? the smoke machine malfunctioned, belching vapour until the actors were shrouded in fog, but this mishap was handled beautifully by all three, whose commitment, wit and interplay meant we forgave a higher-than-average amount of corpsing.
Ben Hales, a multi-instrumentalist who sits in the corner bedecked in glaringly genre-appropriate clothing, provides the musical backing for both plays. In Western? he’s particularly busy, playing harmonica, acoustic and electric guitar, cymbals and keyboards. Each play also features a decent musical number by the trio.
Occasionally the mad tonal shifts fall flat: early in Western?, the murder of an innocent, heavily pregnant mother-to-be of twins is treated more or less as comic detritus, leaving an incongruous aftertaste, while some may be slightly wearied by the intensity of the intergalactic hijinks in Sci-Fi? towards the end. It’s also fair to say that references to Titanic and The Crystal Maze detract from the hermetic world the performers have created, where influences from pop culture are general rather than specific. But neither play outstays its welcome, and by the end our imaginations have only been enlivened by the evocative possibilities of physical comedy and of extraordinarily resourceful direction.
Sleeping Trees were performing as part of Incoming festival 2017. Click here for more of the programme.