darkroom bar, 336 St Asaph St, Christchurch

03/10/2013 - 03/10/2013

Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

12/10/2013 - 12/10/2013

Tararua Tramping Club, 4 Moncrieff St, Mt Victoria, Wellington

03/05/2013 - 04/05/2013

The Wine Cellar, St Kevins Arcade (K Rd), Auckland

09/05/2013 - 11/05/2013

BATS Theatre (Out-Of-Site) Understudy Bar, Wellington

09/10/2013 - 09/10/2013

NZ International Comedy Festival 2007-09, 2013

Production Details


This show is about bonsai trees. It starts with the vague and mustachioed memory of my Uncle Kirk and concludes with an earthquake and some sort of quiet, trans-dimensional enlightenment.

I want it to be delicate and pretty and hopefully it’ll sort of drip with the kind of syrupy mysticism I’ve found myself gravitating towards in the last couple of years.

This is my show for my Christchurch. The syrupiest town in the whole bloody country. 

Entry by koha.

Please come.

As part of the 2013 NZ International Comedy Festival


Date: Fri 3 – Sat 4 May, 8.30 pm
Venue: Tararua Tramping Club, 4 Moncrieff St, Mt Victoria

Date: Thu 9 – Sat 11 May, 8.30 pm
Venue: The Wine Cellar, St Kevins Arcade, 183 Karangahape Rd

Tickets: Entry by Koha

For the sweetest deals and hottest comedy news throughout the Festival head to

October 2013 tour

Thursday 3rd October at Darkroom Bar, 336 St Asaph St 

Wednesday 9th October at Bats Out-of-Site’s Understudy Bar

Saturday 12th October at The Basement

All shows are entry by Koha (at the end). 

Witty, literary, metaphysical and thrumming with nervous energy

Review by Erin Harrington 04th Oct 2013

Christchurch-born Joseph Harper describes himself as looking like a “stoner Where’s Wally from Auckland” and expresses both excitement and abject fear about presenting his one man comedy show – his “show about Christchurch” – for a hometown audience.

Think: Tree (Omoutautahi) is an elaborate shaggy dog story about bonsai trees – specifically, a red-berried bonsai from the Christchurch Botanic Gardens that Harper loved visiting as a child. Much later it had been stolen in a stealthy bonsai tree heist and eventually found its way into the to-scale memory garden of an aging bonsai enthusiast in Governor’s Bay. Harper describes his attempts to track it down in exacting detail.

Often Harper starts riffing on a theme or chatting to the audience, and he is adept at tying these diversions and tangents back into the main thread of the narrative, to the point that it is sometimes hard to tell what he’s prepared and when he’s extemporising until much later.

Although the show drifts and rambles, there is a clear structure and intention underneath. About halfway through the show Harper name-checks Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘On Exactitude in Science’, and Think: Tree (Omoutautahi) is certainly Borgesian structurally and thematically. It deals with mental and emotional cartography, with the branching and looping of memory, and the way that nostalgia can come to define your sense of self, even if the concrete signifiers of your imagined past are taken away or appropriated by others.

It also considers how memory is an act of will, and his meandering, often surreal anecdotes about growing up in suburban Christchurch contribute to this sense of shared, constructed past – especially as the hometown audience is familiar with many of the finer details of his geographic commentary.

The venue, darkroom, is a small, dim bar that offers a comfortably intimate space, and this contributes to the sense of community. (I presume that the title Omoutautahi is an insertion of “mōu”, or “for you”, into Ōtautahi, Christchurch.)

One of my companions describes the show as an “awkward best man’s speech”, in part because Harper is so anxious that he’s visibly thrumming with nervous energy. (It probably doesn’t help that nearly a dozen of his family are in the audience, about to hear the ignominious tale of his first time getting drunk: age 14, a plastic mug of vodka, puking all over his double denim.) The metaphor is apt, but only if that best man was generous with his wit, and had a good sense of the literary and the metaphysical.  

Often this awkwardness is a large part of the charm – even the show’s promotional material was titled “world’s worst press release thing” – and sometimes I’m laughing so hard that I start to cry. However, this self-deprecation can undermine the overall purpose of the show. There’s a fine line between working a low-status persona and appearing to lack confidence in the strength of your material. The last line is a goodie and it’s almost casually thrown away.   

At the beginning of the show, while engaging in acts of “housekeeping” (there’s that best man metaphor again), Harper outlines his MO – less comedy show, more oddball TedX talk – and states his intentions. They are 1) not to act as an impediment to any romance that might be brewing between audience members who have arrived at the bar for their first date, unaware of the performance; 2) to deliver a good show; and 3) not to die. I can’t speak for the first, but he certainly manages the latter two.


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Endearing, quirky, spontaneous, touching

Review by Stephen Lunt 10th May 2013

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.


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Volumes in microcosms

Review by John Smythe 04th May 2013

By way of getting started, Auckland-based Joseph Harper offers some delightful perceptions of Wellington that prove he sees the world we share quite differently. He also confides that he’d forgotten this piece he’s about to deliver for the first time was for the Comedy Festival … and yet he has a way of making what could be mundane amusing and sometimes hilarious.

In a show that seems like a loose ramble but is actually an astutely crafted meditation inspired by his experiences of bonsai trees, the title Think:Tree turns out to relate to a scene from the film The Karate Kid. The way Harper tells it, Mr Miyagi counsels the Kid to first imagine the tree he wants it to be; then he will know how to make it a reality. Not the best “life’s what you make of it” metaphor but it does link to some very amusing anecdotes.

I haven’t deciphered the subtitle, Omoutautahi, but Ōtautahi is the Māori name for Christchurch, which is where Harper grew up, and it’s central to the stories he tells. As it happens mōu means for you, and moumou can, in different contexts, mean misspent, needless, pity, squandered, struggle and waste – and all these concepts resonate here.

In a YouTube clip from 2012 Harper says he’d like to think his audience got things in retrospect and indeed it is later that I realise how his recollection of himself as a gruesome baby who didn’t grow (because of his own unwillingness to eat rather than anything anyone else was doing to him) relates directly to his bonsai motif.

What begins as a fond memory of the beloved bonsai garden in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens segues into a bizarre story of his first performing experience there and if you want to know why and how Elvis extinguished a flaming monkey you’ll just have to go to the show.

The reduction of Christchurch – “no chimneys” – from what he once knew is on theme too, and the tale of how his quest to recover what was lost through the great bonsai heist (again, you have to be there) brings him to a widow’s greenhouse in Governor’s Bay, speaks volumes about microcosms, and the making and preserving of memories.

Having admitted up front he was a bit underprepared and so may need to refer to his written script, it will be no surprise to Harper that I feel his ending needs work, not only in the presentation but in the content, given his sudden introduction of flocks of butterflies seems out of context and so doesn’t fly as yet.

Nevertheless, his self-referential and deferential deconstruction of the process as it plays out adds lots of apparently spontaneous humour which his loyal audience laps up with delight. It could be more clipped and concise but then it wouldn’t be Harper.


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