Tree by Daniel Kitson and Tim Key
When I went to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green a few years ago, we drove into London and I become incensed watching the pedestrians because apparently everyone had received a memo about wearing topknots and I never got the memo. There I was with my blow-dried hair looking at old doll houses in an old train station, excruciatingly without a topknot. I was 45. I guess 45 is when you stop getting the memos.
I can report from last night at the Old Vic that the memo this year required a combination of dark-rimmed glasses and excruciatingly vitamin D-deficient skin for any gender. Transclucent levels of pale. But men, chin to collar bone, need to look like Montana separatists who spent the winter cleaning their guns and shooting antelope.
No one's beard is longer than Daniel Kitson's. I don't know how long he has been growing it, I have never seen him live before. He is a phenomenon. His shows famously sell out in a heartbeat. In ten years of him at the Edinburgh Fringe I have never managed to get tickets. But my friend E managed for Tree.
There is a tree in the play, Daniel is hidden up the tree for the play, hard to see. Underneath the tree a man in a hurry appears with a picnic. They begin to talk. It is easy to be bored with two characters revealing their backstories in anecdotes but this was done with a charm and a mindfulness. They snuck up on the audience, it seemed so innocuous at first, an English eccentric who lives in a tree and a man planning a picnic. Amusing enough, maybe a bit boring at parts - I mean, are there no confident romantics on this entire island? Does every British man have to have this Hugh Grant-style emotional incapacity/slapstick/acute embarrassment?
But then in the last twenty minutes of the play something happens, and the parallels between the characters emerge, not at all in a didactic way, in a quietly amazing way. In a subtle way the parallels expand to us, sitting in the audience, staring up at the tree to get a glimpse of the recluse. Our choices are indicted or at least reviewed. What are you committed to and why? How much of it is inertia or is shaped by the world around you? How does your commitment matter? Do you tell yourself the truth when you answer those questions?
Gently Kitson questions, and his long beard almost seems a disguise, because how could someone with so much insight care about the memo?