Review: 66a Church Road ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: 66a Church Road

Daniel Kitson - a shy, rather literary man with a stutter and a protective beard - is the most unlikely of stand-up comics. It isn't surprising that his work has evolved into a niche all its own, somewhere between theatre, story-telling and comedy, that is probably closest to the work of Spalding Gray. Nor is it surprising that over the years his work has attracted a loyal following.

The secret behind Kitson's self-deprecating allure is his unabashed embrace of the mundane and quotidian. He dares to risk sentiment and cliche in a search for the passions that burn inside the most ordinary realities. Cliches are cliches, after all, because they express commonly held truths. Kitson's gift is to pick up shopworn phrases and commonplace observations and to polish them lovingly, so that the tarnish of their constant usage acquires the lustre and depth of real feeling.

The sparkle of novelty holds no attraction for Kitson: he celebrates instead the beauty of imperfection. He lives in open rebellion against today’s consumerist, disposable, youth-oriented society: he values, passionately, the patina and wrinkles of age, the fingerprints of memory, the chips and cracks of use and experience, which for him define the human capacity for love.

The title of his new show, 66A Church Road: A Lament Made of Memories and Kept in Suitcases, is fairly self-explanatory: here, through his detailed recollections of a much-loved flat, he explores with his trademark wit and poignancy the meanings of memory and home.

Nostalgia, he explains in the recorded voice-over at the beginning, isn't simply muddy sentiment for time past. It derives from the Greek words nostos, meaning to return home, and algos, meaning pain. It expresses the bittersweet longing for home - that yearning for a place that is our own which is at the centre of what makes us human.

A home is much more than a house or a financial investment: it is thousands of minute sensory details - the angle of a floor, the precise alignment of shadows at particular times of the day, irregularities in a wall, a cracked window, a certain smell - that are the habitations of memory. And it is memory, as Kitson says, that makes what we call a self.

In this ninety minute show, Kitson evokes his six-year love affair (the longest relationship, he tell us, in his life) with a rented flat in the London suburb of Crystal Palace. The show is a long, demanding and often very funny monologue: he recounts finding the flat, its virtues and its inconveniences, his vexed relationship with his landlord, his dream of buying the building and opening a record shop with a miniature cinema in the basement. Punctuating his chronological account of discovery and, ultimately, loss, are recorded fragments which tell of a parallel relationship with a lover, the story of which is bound with the flat but which remains, nevertheless, deeply private.

In fact, one of the paradoxes of 66a Church Road is that it is deeply, exposingly personal while at the same remaining profoundly private. I think that's largely a function of how it's written. Kitson's disarming orotundities and bizarrely-stretched comic metaphors translate personal experience into a public language, so that the more he reveals, the more something essential is hidden, even if we feel its presence pulsing beneath the surface of the language.

The personal becomes a mask: the mask in this case is language and performance itself. We know that there's a gap between the performer and the private individual before us, even if they are also the same person. It's this gap that permits the comedy and, perhaps more crucially, the feeling to emerge within the show.

It's an irresistibly Proustian exercise, in which Kitson attempts to recapture in words the multiplicities of memoried experience; and yet, as he explains at the end, immediate experience is precisely what always, in the final accounting, evades language. The act of translating experience into words inevitably reduces memory, fixing it in the past: details are lost or fudged, and feeling is emptied out in the tasks of remembering and saying. And this is why, he tells us, he has kept the most important memories for himself.

Kitson performs on a set which consists of a host of battered suitcases placed on an old Persian carpet. The suitcases are themselves boxes of memory: he opens them during the performance to reveal beautiful little models of his flat. He gives a generous, energised performance that demands and keeps your attention (and which makes me wonder how he can possibly do a late show in the Black Box afterwards). It's a show of great charm, in its original sense: an incantation of a magic spell, in which things that are irrevocably lost shimmer in our minds, briefly alive again in the parallel world of imagination.

66A Church Road: A Lament Made of Memories and Kept in Suitcases, by Daniel Kitson. Victorian Arts Centre. Fairfax Studio. January 15. Until January 31. Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Arts, February 2-7; Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth Festival, February 17-28.


Matthew said...

It smarts to have missed this when it played in Sydney; smarts, too, not to be able to see the Black Box show, which I hear he's using as a sounding board for material that may or may not end up in a new show.

Your review is a pleasure: I agree with your comments on Kitson's work in general, and appreciate the seriousness with which you treat it. Obviously, I'm a big fan, too.

Emily said...

This was such a gorgeous show! I was, for a time, motivated to move back to London again, where everything is close together, nothing too far away.
But in reality, the winter (shudder).
I'd never seen one of Daniel's shows before Tues night, and I was just in love with the performance right from the word go. Beautiful poetry of language, a love and romance of the everyday. And the interspersed memories were lovely.

I'm still glowing with the memories of this show. The most wonderful thing I've seen in ages.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm glad you so enjoyed it, Emily!

Anonymous said...

Still enjoying my melancholic buzz the day after seeing this amazing man tell his story.

I was so happy your review touched on that absent female character bursting out of the text that almost refused to acknowledge her presence.

Not sure if you were able to down south but up in Brisbane he let the audience up on stage afterward to do a little tour of the suitcases and see the models up close. Astounding detail and perspectives.

He was lovely and approachable in the bar afterward. And he's made a life long fan out of me.