Just under a year ago Daniel Kitson opened Analog.Ue, his second show at the National Theatre. Originally developed for New York and retooled for London in what felt like the slightest hint of instability in this wispy monolith’s artistic process. Off-Broadway the show hadn’t quite met with the rapturous reception his work usually generates, either from the mainstream press or his more astute online following .
By the time it made it to London it was a very different beast: richer, warmer, less austere and conceptually uncompromising. But in its self-reflexivity and the new strands of solipsism which it accrued on crossing the pond, it also felt like the completion of a loose trilogy which began with As of 1.52 GMT… and continued into After the Beginning . Before the End – one which considered the proportions of the corner Kitson the man, Kitson the artist and Kitson the (anti?)-brand had painted himself into. Nobody was saying ‘Kitson’s time has been and gone’ or ‘Kitson’s finished’, I mean, we’re not fucking idiots, but there was something of the mid-career crisis in his tone and his content, albeit a crisis hammered into robust and often beautiful art.
The answer to this all, if it demanded an answer in the first place, is the resolute and uncomplicated brilliance of Tree. It’s not a simple play, its thematic roots run far and deep through the nature of community and compliance, empathy and fantasy, but its artistry is neither introspective nor retrospective. It’s a play, for two people (count them, two!) performed on a set in a little over 90 minutes, and it’s the best new comedy that’s been seen in London in ages.
The first rustlings were sounded during an early-morning Work in Progress at Latitude 2013, where Kitson had decided on the set, the number of characters and about four pages of decent dialogue. Later that year it sprouted to full height at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, and the thing which spreads its branches across the Old Vic truly feels like theatre to shelter under. It’s angry and it’s right and it’s terribly clever, but in the company of Kitson and the brilliant Tim Key you really feel like you can take a load off. It’s a bright and leafy thing growing in a world that can feel painfully hard and deathly.
Key plays a nameless lawyer who’s meeting a date under the last tree standing on some faceless London street. He’s brought a picnic along with his emotional baggage, and while he waits Kitson draws him into a story of resistance, community and how to do your number twos from up a tree.
Key and Kitson may be playing two sides of the same coin, sharing an affection for megaphones, an eye for tiny twee details and a love for the queered turn of phrase that’s instantly familiar for fans of the latters work, but their reciprocal story-telling, their game of back and forth and their growing shared language of in-jokes unfurls delightfully. Far from dropping him out of his comfort zone, Kitson seems thrilled to have that second voice to play with. It allows him to point out the intricacies of his jokes, or the absurdity of a commonplace phrase – flagging up call-backs, false twists and all the other tricks that he has proved to be such a game and playful master of. Great lines are batted back and forth, concepts tossed idly into the air only to land twenty minutes later with stunning effect. The warmth of Kitson’s previous collaborations with Gavin Osborn and others is present here too, the scale and weight of the Old Vic failing to quash it.
That it’s great is no surprise, but what is unexpected is how Kitson’s writing here feels in a community with a much older and less cool heritage of British comedy. There are jokes, set-pieces and timings here that feel more akin to the best work of Ronnie Barker than Kitson’s indie stand-up peers. He’s always been a sucker for a groan-inducing pun or inversion, but the back and forth bantering here could come from Fletcher’s cell in Porridge, the bunk room of Red Dwarf or Richie and Eddie’s Bottom-dwelling flat in Hammersmith. That’s not, in case there’s any doubt, a bad thing at all.
When Tree has finally played its hand it’s revealed to be one of Kitson’s most outward-looking shows in many years, as well as one of his most openly optimistic. It may be tinged with sadness at the absence of pure and brilliant romance in the world, but in its relentless yarn-spinning and aching little details it has its cake and eats it. Whatever you choose to believe about these two men, and however compromised their dreams and stories may inevitably be or become, they speak of a different and a better life that lies just out of reach of the everyday.