May 9, 2013 Theatre
NZ International Comedy Festival
The Wine Cellar
May 9, 2013
Joseph Harper is small. Maybe 5’5”, in shoes. He starts his set informing us that not only was he a tiny baby, but that, in fact, he shrank rather than grew for a good while. From there he spends a few moments finding ever-more-gratuitous ways to talk up what a foul creature he was as a youngster. But the tone is matter-of-fact – he doesn’t seem especially proud is ashamed of it. That was just his lot.
This sets us off on a meandering journey through what came after. The Christchurch of his youth, particularly the geography of his world. The Botanical Gardens, the local fish and chip shop. The way that certain locations assume a disproportionate scale in your memory, and how shattering their absence can be. If you’re thinking that sounds somewhat serious, or cerebral – he does too. He opens by saying his piece would almost make more sense at the Readers and Writers than the Comedy Festival.
The thing is though, it is extremely funny. There’s an enveloping surreality to the hour, the sense that the lines of fact and fiction have gotten so muddied that you’re never quite sure when Harper is crossing them in either direction. The central narrative revolves around a bonsai tree, and Harper’s strange, magnetic attraction to it. At times he freely admits to a “mawkish” sentimentality about this tree, at others it transforms him into the kind of suburban superhero kid familiar from The Goonies or ET. Don’t go looking for Wes Anderson-style quirk though. This is all very serious, very deeply felt – at times earnest – comedy.
It works, because he’s a charismatic dude. There’s a fidgety energy to his performance – he is in constant motion, pacing around the Wine Cellar’s floor, miming the removal of clothes (and mocking himself for it), flipping pages and, most often, sweeping back his thick black mane. He pauses at one point to explain the habit. It’s touching, revealing, and very funny.
That goes for the whole show. The audience feels like its been invited into Harper’s inner world, a place he’s made a very genuine attempt to articulate for us. That’s where a lot of the humour arises – him attempting to reconcile the origins of his feelings about his Christchurch, and sharing with us the stories that generates, and his amusement at their often bizarre roots.
The main narrative takes up only a third or so of the performance. The rest is made up of these odd, rambling asides – observations, Karate Kid impressions, made up memories – which serve to flesh out his original point. Frequently they take far longer to complete than the point itself. But there’s this masterful, if low key, pacing – while Harper drifts, he knows exactly when to snap back into action.
For the most part, anyway. Sometimes he’ll wander off down a road, only for it to become a cul-de-sac. There are some philosophical elements which rear out, not always clearly articulated, and at times they’re difficult to follow. Particularly when you’ve just been lulled into a low-activity mental state by these pleasant, comforting memory passages. But that’s also kind of the point – at its core this show is about Harper dealing with the difference between the Christchurch of his youth that exists in his mind, and the one returns to now. That traverses a number of different fields of human emotion – from nostalgia to abandonment and a number of junctures between. This fantastic show’s strength is that it makes that journey so entertaining.
Continues May 10 and 11, 8.30pm. Koha.