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.
I want James Harper to be my best friend! And indeed I feel like he is, walking into the back room of the Wine Cellar. We are greeted by our generous host and sit on comfy sofas like being in Joseph's living room.
As Joseph begins to speak, he has an awkwardness about him; we're not sure where he's going to go with this, or indeed if he knows. But soon we realise this quirk is part of why he's funny. I find myself (as most of the other audience seem to) drawn into Joseph's piece, as if he is speaking to me personally. I have to catch myself occasionally, before answering my friend back.
He begins by stating that he wrote the piece, then remembered it was a comedy festival. It certainly feels that way, and all the better for it as it has a natural hilarity that would otherwise be missing from intended humour.
Joseph's story is based on his growing up in Christchurch. He describes his family, the places of his youth and the things that happened, in a way that he remembers them, so they almost become a surreal film. His quirky imagination is infectious and his colourful descriptions create a very real off-centre world in our minds. As the stories progress, Joseph has a clever knack of going on hilarious tangents of comparison but always getting back to the point.
One of the cornerstones of the piece is a map, a life-size map of Joseph's life. He makes this comparison with a fictional town so obsessed with perfection that they create a one to one replica of their town in map form. Obviously Joseph's map is purely descriptive, but such is his power of his imagination, we can see it laid out in front of us, with his youth dotted about on it. The centre point: a Bonsai tree with red berries.
He takes us on a journey through his childhood, and the funny instances along the way. Then to post-quake Christchurch and the unsettlement as to whether his childhood was still there, and so whether his life choices since then have been correct.
But we always go back to the map, and that Bonsai tree in the centre. By the end story, we are touched that Joseph is not alone in his uncertainty, that we all have a map and that the circles of our life will always come back to our own Bonsai tree.
I love this show from beginning to end. Joseph is an incredibly talented story-teller, with an endearing and spontaneous sense of humour. I walk out with that fuzzy feeling after a good film, learning something new about life and myself and having a great laugh along the way.
Get to see this show, and you like me, will want the circles on your map to cross Joseph's again, and create a Bonsai tree with him.