I saw Daniel Kitson a couple of years ago, when he hosted a charitable comedy gig in aid of orangutans. He’d arrived late and then seemed unsure how to tackle his duties, interpreting them variously as exploring the confines of the orchestra pit, lying down, staying on stage for far too long and eventually hurling chocolate bars into the crowd at nose-bruising altitudes. He was a shambles, but gloriously so.
His new performance, The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church, shows Kitson in his element. I use the word ‘performance’ because I can’t think of a neater term – it has all the trappings of a stand-up gig, but the structure of a one-act shaggy dog story. Wandering onto the stage before attaching his microphone, Kitson begins his tale by stating ‘The rest of this isn’t true, I made it up. But this bit is absolutely true.’ Then follows his story of discovering 25-years’-worth of correspondence between an irascible old man and the people that irk him.
Kitson’s summarisation of the 30,000-plus letters takes the form of considered research: he refers to a notebook for exact quotes and describes the limitations of his knowledge about Gregory Church. He also weaves in his (Daniel Kitson’s) own life, as he claims to have read the letters over a two-year period – many of the contained revelations are framed by the circumstances in which he read them.
He’s a unique performer. Kitson’s delivery is at breakneck speed, punctuated only by freezes caused by his stammer, or by his getting distracted by people in the audience. He portrays himself as a shambling amateur, yet the sheer volume of content that he’s memorised suggests otherwise. And his story, although seeming aimless at first, becomes coherent, plausible and sweet. Once his tale is told, he removes his microphone and delivers a heartfelt and moral summary, barely audible, forcing the audience to lean in towards him.
It’s the most affecting performance I’ve seen in ages. The structure reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges’ trick of conjuring whole lives and works from imaginary references and scholarly debate about fictional fictions. With Daniel Kitson’s affable and shambolic delivery, smuggled under the pretext of being stand-up comedy, this technique is incredible and, by the end, it barely matters whether the letters existed or not.