Production photo: After the beginning. Before the End.
Stopping the action mid-way through his latest show, Daniel Kitson announces to the front of house staff at the City Varieties, Leeds, ”There’s an alarm going off … I can’t tell if it’s inside or outside of the building … It seems a shame if we all die here because someone failed to point it out … It’s probably nothing, guys … we’ll carry on”. If you’ve seen the man before you’ll know what I mean when I say: it’s tiny things like this that make him exceptional.
The first Daniel Kitson show I saw (I was a late bloomer) was ‘It’s always right now, until it’s later’ at the Edinburgh Fringe 2010. I sat with two friends at 10am in the Traverse Theatre and watched in the relative darkness, a few lightbulbs on stage lighting the be-bearded raconteur’s progress. By the end I was a wreck. Trying my best to hold back blubs whilst keeping face with my two buddies, ready to blame it on the time of the morning, a hangover, whatever. Turns out, they were exactly the same.
Every Kitson show I’ve ever seen has been an incredible experience. There’s a sort of poetic nonchalance in his delivery which makes it seem off the cuff and spontaneous; as if these beautiful eruptions of words and stories and moments are just happening, now. You almost feel privileged to have witnessed it.
This new piece, ‘Before the beginning. After the end.’, is a strange surprise. Genre-wise, it’s incredibly slippery. Was it a stand-up show? (Kitson sat down throughout and he’s far too smart for this not to have been a point to be made) Was it a piece of storytelling? (There wasn’t really a narrative). What actually happens is that Daniel Kitson thinks at us for two hours. It was dense with language; a barrage of his West Yorkshire mirth and wisdom, cracking like a hundred whips, rumbling on like a hungry gut.
The show is riddled with whimsical philosophy. Like all great thinkers, Kitson manages to smuggled an awful lot into our brains while distracting us with cleverly assembled aphorisms and anecdotes. I found myself nodding along at his observations, as if I were at a lecture by Žižek
It’s possible for a show like this to tip into navel-gazing and self-absorption. And, with a lesser performer, this would have quickly becoming nasty and irritating. But Kitson is incredibly aware of himself; of his reputation and godlike status amongst comedy fans. And he knows how to handle this awareness. Even when addressing the strangeness of his impact on the lives of his admirers, head-on, it seems like he’s merely brushing-off his shoulders off after a rain shower.
Interspersed with wibbly sound effects and a lilting, airy soundtrack, Kitson procedes to just talk to us. About moments of his life, about second-hand memories and, mostly, about thoughts he’s had. A strange, weaving series of background noises keeps up with him, giving the memoir-esque fragments a dreamy quality.
There were rare moments when I wasn’t laughing and, in those moments, I caught myself just beaming in the darkness of the City Varieties. Just being in Kitson’s company (in a manner of speaking) is a huge pleasure. You feel like you’re in a Merrie England cafe with a very clever chatterbox. It’s, somehow, homey.
If ‘It’s always right now, until it’s later’ was a novella, this show is a collection of meandering, delightful, loosely-connected short stories. Connections are forged, yes. But there’s something more simple about this show which, if you were looking for grand and universal meaning, might leave you feeling disappointed. It’s a show about moments, enjoying those moments, and trying to untangle yourself from an obsession about how each moment might end.
I saw ‘Before the beginning. After the end’ at City Varieties, Leeds, on Thursday 9th May 2013.