What are you doing up there mate? asks Tim Key’s character in the opening few minutes of Tree. Minutes earlier we see him arrive for a picnic date under a tree and conduct an uncomfortable phone call with his date in which he discovers that, owing to the clocks changing, he has managed to be simultaneously slightly late and very early. To his dismay, he discovers that the whole scene has been witnessed by a man who appears to be living in said tree.
It’s his question to the tree-dweller that puts the play in gear, instigating a rambling dialogue between two unnamed characters in which each gradually coaxes details from the other about the past decade of their respective lives. Key’s besuited lawyer, we soon learn, is rekindling an old flame after a ten-year hiatus, while Kitson’s bearded outsider is approaching his tenth year living in a tree, after an impromptu protest over some overzealous pollarding spiralled out of control.
The chemistry between the two is striking and Kitson’s script is sparky and quirky, showing the same acute eye for detail and flair for narrative that characterises his stand-up. The tree itself also deserves a special mention. It’s magnificent creation that dominates the round of the Old Vic, at once surreal and hyper-real, and it’s perfect for the play.
The two-characters-waiting-and-bickering set-up obviously has echoes of Beckett, but philosophically, Tree is actually quite slight. It prods gently at issues such as the nature of commitment, the passing of time, and the way society treats people who live outside the norm, but in fact Tree is perhaps genetically more similar to a Kitson stand-up routine than it is to a piece of existential theatre. The focus is on the repartee, rather than on the existential. And that’s just fine: it’s some very high quality repartee.