After three weeks without theater and a week with a truly dispiriting run of shows, I felt actively nervous heading into Tree at the Old Vic. A month ago it had sounded perfect, a ninety minute, comic two hander: but I’d lost my sense of purpose. Yeah, Stewart Pringle said the star was a very funny guy, but I didn’t know him from Adam. And then there’s that whole problem I have with British comedy. Half of the time, I just don’t get it, and most of the rest of the time I don’t understand why people are laughing at something that may be odd but certainly isn’t funny. But still, ninety minutes and nineteen pounds, and a Waterloo location to ensure I got home before eleven: I’d just have to push through.
Walking into the theater, I was faced with (spoiler alert!) a three story tree in the middle of the auditorium. Okay, well, it did SAY it was called Tree, I just wasn’t expecting a tree to figure so grandly in things. The auditorium was configured in a much more up-sweeping fashion than usual, with people sat 360 degrees around the small area of the set, even in the boxes. And then a bearded man scaled the tree.
And then, within a few minutes of the start of the play, we were told that he had been up this tree for eight years. OH NOES. I figure there was now two ways for things to go: either some horrible, cloying, environmentalist fable, or a completely nauseating, modern-day existentialist pile of crap. The man up the tree and the man at the base of the tree – a middle-aged suit in a suit killing time before a picnic – strung out the inevitable revelation of “the point of it all” by getting on with some getting to know each other conversation (in which tree man delicately avoids saying just why he’s up the tree), delaying my inevitable disappointment at the heavy handedness of it all by telling little stories about their lives: Suit used to try to save the world from dog poop; Tree has food delivered once a week; Suit’s in love with a woman who makes funny faces when she smiles; Tree watches movies with a widow via binoculars; Suit once spilled a huge bottle of American cream soda over himself; Tree has come up with a unique solution to the toilet question. In some ways, like Waiting for Godot, this story telling is really what the play is about, and with two such personable protagonists, it’s actually really fun to listen to them tell each other stories, occasionally offend each other, and generally act like English blokes.
And then, at last, the moment came, when the horrible revelation happened that clarified for once and for all if this was an environmental fable or some aggravating absurdist/existentialist piece of tripe. But lo! Kitson and Key swung off in another direction just when the whole thing seemed hopeless. And, in just a few more minutes, it was all over, and I realized I’d just had a really good evening. A few days later I found out the play had been extended, and to that I say good: you could hardly ask for a more perfect comic gem of a show than this one.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, January 19th, 2015. It continues until February 22nd.)