Set in the period just before his appointment as Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 1957, The Tulip Tree exposes the unseen Enoch Powell – not the ranting orator of his later years, but a bookish, meek and confused man, confounded by that most simple of emotions – love.
Written by playwright Oliver Michell, The Tulip Tree examines Powell’s fragile relationship with young society belle Barbara and her circle of upper class friends, a group to which he and they know he doesn’t really belong despite his academic success and glittering military career (Powell gained a professorial appointment before the age of 30 and became the youngest brigadier in the history of the British Army).
Having previously been romantically involved with another man, never the less Powell takes every opportunity to pursue Barbara, to the alarm of her frightfully posh mother. He even goes so far as to pen poems of admiration and slip them under her bedroom door, but his awkward and fumbling approaches are finally thwarted when Barbara announces her engagement to the strapping and boisterous Paul, a childhood friend.
Alexander Shenton puts in an excellent performance as Enoch Powell. His voice hinting at the broad vowels of the politician’s Birmingham background, his portrayal is appropriately waif-like – he drifts about the stage with the uncertain steps of some insubstantial ghost. Also impressive is Tessa Wood as the angry and indignant Mrs Monckton, who pours scorn on everyone who dares to cross her path.
Casting a light on aspects of Enoch Powell’s personality that history has rendered virtually invisible, The Tulip Tree is certainly an intriguing play. I do have some concerns about the playwright’s intentions however – is the audience supposed to be more sympathetic to Powell’s legacy because of this failed romance? If that’s the case I’m not sure that I agree – lots of men have unhappy love lives but it doesn’t turn them into the kind of person that Powell finally became. With his towering intelligence he must have known how his Rivers of Blood speech would be received, not least by his constituents who at the time made up one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the country.
Worth watching to see Alexander Shenton’s performance alone, Oriel Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Tulip Tree – The Love Story of J.Enoch Powell‘ runs at London’s Drayton Arms Theatre until 25 April.