By his own admission – and his own design – Daniel Kitson is a wealthy man. A stand-up comedian (who doesn’t actually stand up, he sits at a desk), he has no marketing outreach whatsoever. He does not advertise his shows. He does not make DVDs of his shows. He does not “do” television appearances. Whatever you “do”, don’t rely on his website for up-to-date information. He has a staunch following built up bit by bit over the years on the back of word-of-mouth and the jewel in his crown: a mailing list. His only expenditure is venue hire and the cost of his beloved pool table, which surfaces again and again throughout his discourse like a plaster in a swimming pool.
As Kitson takes his seat on the stage on 24 July 2013 at the Battersea Arts Centre, all bald head, glasses and beard, he twiddles some knobs on a musical gadget, which launches promptly into a pick-and-mix of atmospheric tones and doesn’t cease to emit noise throughout the ensuing hundred minutes. The sounds are manipulated on the spot by the man himself and used, to great effect, to add flavour to his monologue: his speech is melodic, poetic, expertly cadenced, and punctuated now and then by a lapse into a rigorously controlled stammer.
The combination of relentless background music plus Kitson’s stupefying intelligence and lyrical delivery makes for an exhausting watching experience. It’s as if he’s fracking for kindred spirit. During the first five minutes I felt like I was being bashed over the head with a gigantism-ridden Nobel Prize for Literature, convinced that I would fail to “get it”, and already regretting my rash decision to spend £12.00 on a ticket to see a comedian I knew not a bean about. Five minutes in, however, when the old brain had adjusted to the hypnotic onslaught of speech swaddled in music, resistance to Kitson’s genius was futile. The bashing diminished to playful slapping and the inspirational juices ran thick and fast: all knowledge is assumption. Nothing is irrefutable. If it’s snappy then it’s crappy (spread it with credit). Oh, and there’s quite a good bit about a Mooncup®; heaven forbid that toilet humour shouldn’t make an appearance.
His more bilious material – the victims of which range from child-sprouting friends to ex-girlfriends to himself – is tempered with genuinely provocative insights into the foibles of memories, and what it is to be alive. One idea which lingers like a pleasant smell is that of life’s two “sliding scales”: one of experience, and one of possibility, which together form the basis of our existence. A baby has all possibility and zero experience, while a dying man has all experience and zero possibility. And the bit in the middle – where experience and possibility intertwine, vying equally for attention, and we are forced to juggle the two – is the messy bit.
My companions and I dissected the show over a pint afterwards, as those who have been probed in the thought glands for the best part of two hours are wont to do. I ventured to say that Kitson’s attitude was blasé; my friend gawked in disbelief – if anything, Kitson was riddled with crippling paranoia. Our arguments were eventually reconciled in the conclusion that he was indeed riddled with crippling paranoia, but his transmission of that paranoia was blasé. He is a cohesive and intoxicating performer, mixing black humour, flippancy, intensity, irascible philosophy, music and rhetorical storytelling. When all is said and done, though, Kitson is not a likeable character. He’s belligerent. He’s condescending. Yes, his condescension is faintly ironic, but he’s not really hilarious enough to balance the act. And yet he holds his audience captive – ears, eyes and grey matter reeled in hook, line and sinker. The result of this is a black eye and a cauliflower ear from the mental beating, but I suspect that it has made me a better person.
Catch Daniel Kitson at the Battersea Arts Centre until 1 August 2013