Tree, by Daniel Kitson

Note: This review is from 2013

Theatre review by Steve Bennett at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Daniel Kitson doesn’t hang about. Barely has he finished his last tour than he pops up with a new project – the master monologist’s first two-hander, no less.

Tree, which he both wrote and directed, lies somewhere between Waiting For Godot and Morecambe and Wise’s front-of-cloth banter. ‘Godot’ here is Sarah, a girl that Tim Key’s nervous, slightly testy, Everyman is meeting for a first proper date, a picnic beneath a tree that stands alone on a suburban road. He’s unfeasibly early, and as he paces edgily, a voice calls out a greeting from the upper branches. Kitson’s.

Their characters don’t get names, but as they chat back and forth, their back stories are pieced together. How the man on the ground had become besotted with Sarah a decade ago, and only a chance meeting on a bus rekindled the flame. How the man in the tree got there – an unplanned consequence of a neighbourhood kerfuffle metamorphosing into stubborn direct action, an eco-protest now in its tenth year – and the practicalities of an arboreal life. Going to the toilet, that’s always the first question people want answered, he sighs from his bough in the three-story tree on the Royal Exchange’s stage.

The story of Key’s character is classic Kitson territory, the magical romance of a chance encounter, the unrequited yearning for a woman imagined perfect in her absence, and the quirky details that bind these together. The yarn Kitson’s given himself, meanwhile, is a chance to spin an imaginatively eccentric, but always credible, narrative.

But it is the interplay between the two men that sparkles. Even in his one-man shows Kitson sometimes has two voices, the poetic narrator and a more pragmatic side, the stand-up in him commenting on his own purple prose and bringing high-falutin ideas back down to earth. With two characters, challenging each other’s motivations and actions as they tell their stories to a stranger, the opportunity for playful comic backchat is greater, and deftly seized. And Key is yin to Kitson’s yang. He is innately world-weary, Kitson an idealist – despite both feeling that the world is a hostile place, full of dicks.

The script maintains an enviable strike rate for consistently funny lines, as the pair leap upon life’s small details, and their peculiar likes and dislikes, with nimble wit. The language of natural dialogue is less grandiloquent than monologue, but Kitson still evokes vivid images – as well as getting excellent use out of the term ‘pollarding’, a drastic form of pruning. We can see the awkward party interaction, the bus trip, the neighbour letting him watch TV through binoculars from his elevated position. And as they discuss their lives, ordinary to themselves if not to others, fascinating social points about the mixed blessings of ‘community spirit’, credibility and commitment are raised.

Some of these are a little late coming, as the story treads water around the two-thirds mark once the twin tales have been established. But that settled state is important, too, for it is there to be destroyed by the masterfully sneaky punchline the entire 90 minutes have been gradually building up to. Kitson’s tree certainly bears fruit.

Review date: 16 Sep 2013
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre

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