The last decade or two have made it painfully apparent that there is a new super-race who regularly gather in secret to create dastardly concoctions the likes of which us sorry mortals could never conceive. Unlike most reptilian illuminati, however, this group meet in quirky places such as treehouses in New Jersey backyards, gingerbread shops in Munchen and sun-dappled punts floating their lazy way down the Cam. They draw charmingly naïve pictures of ducks in waistcoats while plotting their next gambit regarding world domination. Sometimes they all wear tracksuits and play elastics and wonder if post-post-irony is a concept worth pursuing. On a quiet candlelit eve, they might crane their necks to look over the shoulders of lifetime members Mssr Gondry and Ms July and the assembled members of The Arcade Fire to watch as Dave Eggers takes a quiet sip from one of their latest homebrews and nods sagely before pronouncing his verdict:
“Needs more whimsy.”
There’s a bit in Daniel Kitson’s new show where he deprecates the smug arrogance of the person who claims to appreciate the tiny imperfections of daily life – who begs a fondness for the wonky stairs of their home, as opposed to finding them something in need of fixing. It’s a moment in the show that seems vital, since Kitson is exactly this person. He does find meaning in his wonky stairs, and his works in recent years have for me been characterised by just that smug arrogance, dealing as they have with the allure of obsolescence: cassette tapes, lollipop ladies, fireworks, English food.
I never really thought Kitson hit the mark, though. He was a famously misanthropic stand-up who made his name with an inimitable ability to excoriate the targets of his wrath in brilliantly verbose fashion. Then he reinvented himself as an arch-humanist, a teller of modern fables, an observer of life’s less-appreciated moments of tiny wonder. The kind of person who’s three guitar lessons away from calling himself a troubadour. I didn’t buy it.
Of course I don’t have a problem with finding great meaning (or humour) in imperfection or whimsy or storytelling. I do love so much of the work that fits into the indie mould that has carved its way into the pop cultural psyche. I’m cool with a comedian playing a Casio keyboard or distributing cupcakes among the audience; cardboard props are perfectly acceptable in theatre; Wes Anderson may proceed as planned.
But Kitson’s recent work never rang true for me. He who once declaimed the baseness of man in the most startlingly erudite and obscene ways had discovered a new respect for our common lot – but only on his own terms. The noble preterite populating his stories were only noble because he had invented them, and its telling that the humanism of this new generation of fabulists is always ensconced in fantasy and make-believe. It’s like that distinction people make between ‘childlike’ and ‘childish’: I don’t think you can have one without the other.
66a Church Road is a very different beast for me – rather than inventing worlds of admirable fallibility, Kitson has finally found deep and profound beauty in a direct experience. Specifically, he’s probed his own relationship with a flat he lived in for six years, and weaves a very engaging and sometimes hilarious narrative around the eponymous apartment. It’s a story that anyone who’s ever rented should be able to relate to: the absurd love for a particular architectural folly simply because it’s yours, and the sense of protective impotency which arises when a witless landlord decides to take it all away from you.
It’s a great piece of theatre that would certainly work well as a written text, but is given extra flourish by Kitson’s genial and polished performance (along with a low-key but generous stage design). It sold me – it’s the show that should have c-90 should have been, and I hope it’s the kind of show I’ll see from the performer in the future. Then again, a friend who’s been a Kitson fan for a while absolutely hated it, so maybe it’s not for everyone. I definitely recommend deciding for yourself.
Fairfax Theatre, the Arts Centre. Ends Sunday.