On the face of it, ultra-DIY comic Daniel Kitson should feel about as at comfy doing a month at the 1,000-seat Old Vic as Gandhi might doing a season in Vegas. But he’s made it feel like home for ‘Tree’, his first ‘proper’ play after years of increasingly theatrical storytelling shows.
Tickets have been capped at his approved top price of £16. There is an obstinate refusal to allow any photographs of the production whatsoever. And any qualms Kitson may have about the size and grandeur of the venue are presumably mitigated by the fact that – in a move both sweetly absurd and ironically ostentatious – he spends the entire performance barely visible to us, in the upper branches of an enormous tree.
Titular prop aside, the main innovation in ‘Tree’ is the presence of a second performer, the similarly cultish comic Tim Key. And what a difference it makes: where Kitson’s solo shows had been growing steadily more self-referential and obtuse, ‘Tree’ is suffused with a warmth and genuine fondness for the characters that recalls his earliest forays into storytelling.
Kitson plays an unnamed man at the top of a tree, which he claims to have been up for nine years. Key plays an unnamed man at the bottom of the same tree, who has just turned up an hour early for a picnic date. Kitson is sweet and childlike: there’s something unfailingly winning about the way his voice sails absurdly down from the foliage as he expounds on the bizarre but strangely logical reasons for his elevation. Key is loud, agitated and on edge, stomping, sweating and fannying around with an elaborate picnic, less comfortable on the ground than Kitson is in the air. It’s another storytelling show, as each man tells the other why he’s there. But their wildly contrasting energies combine brilliantly, and Kitson has a great way with dialogue – particularly a near virtuosic understanding of the passive-aggressive possibilities of the word ‘mate’.
After almost 90 minutes of amusing teasing and pottering, it all comes to a head with a triple whammy of rug-pulling revelations that show Kitson hasn’t entirely ditched the post-modernism. But if traces of darkness creep in, ‘Tree’ remains a pure delight, root and branch.