Nicole Serratore: As one of the few people to dislike Kitson‘s last theatre show, Analog.ue (note, the NYC production was not identical to the later London production) I was happy to find him returning to more traditional storytelling form here in this warm and funny tale of a cross-generational Christmas involving a midsize motor home, a series of voicemails, and a mysterious red bag.
Just as in Analog.ue, After the Beginning. Before the End, and his summer storytelling piece with Gavin Osborn, Kitson is working with pre-recorded material which he weaves into the story. This allows us to hear the voice of our heroine, 39 year-old Polly Plunkett, who is desperate to keep to her Christmas traditions when an incident with elderly wanderer Nicholas sends her off the rails a bit. Though they seem an unlikely pair, they end up on the road together and spend an unusual Christmas together.
Starting the story in a miserable over-crowded rental car office on Christmas Eve I found myself recalling having spent a miserable Christmas Eve myself in a rental car office, only to have a tire blow out on the car and have to be rescued long after midnight by a man in New Jersey I thought was named Jesus. So it turns out I was well-primed for a Christmas yarn full of magic and snow and car-related mishaps. As Kitson remains a sweary and emphatic presence in the story, there are also fisticuffs, arguments, and some religious debunking about “magic Jesus.” Only Kitson could manage to make someone mouthing “Merry Fucking Christmas” both sweet and gut-bustingly funny.
Polly and Nicholas’s story touches on journeys, traditions, the passage of time, aging, loneliness, grief, but most of all possibility. As with many Kitson storytelling shows it looks both to the past and then to the present and there’s a conscious reckoning of the distance between the two. When Nicholas says, “Can you remember how Christmas actually felt when you were little,” you have to think about that gleeful time of your life racing downstairs in footed pajamas for presents and now in adulthood the dread of holiday traffic, last minute shopping, and elbowing your way through crowded stores to just cross off presents for everyone on your list. There is a deep inner kindness and patience from Polly when Nicholas gets into a fight with some men – and the words “hot chocolate O’clockolate” may warm your soul more than you expect. With this show, Kitson has yet again managed to find a way to melt my cynical heart.
John Murphy: I think the main thing that’s jumped out at me with Kitson‘s work in the latter part of this year is how much fun he seems to be having again. There was a period, encompassing last year’s After The Beginning Before The End and March’s performance of Analog.ue at the Natioanl Theatre, that the melancholy wistfulness that’s always been present in his work was starting to become his defining mark – and while I admired Analog.ue, I found myself marvelling at the technical achievement rather than the head-spinningly convoluted tale those whirring open-reel tapes were playing.
Yet with A Series Of Objects In A Room (the most recent collaboration with Gavin Osborne at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe), the sheer giddy enjoyment was back – and it’s Kitson‘s ability to recreate wide-eyed childish wonder which stands out most beautifully in his Christmas show. For this is a beautifully written little festive story, one that evokes magic and wonder but keeps it all brilliantly grounded in a sweary, very English, reality. And, as ever with Kitson, it’s so beautifully written, with little turns of phrase that keep coming back to you for days afterwards: Nicholas’ indeterminate age being “too young to die, too old to tap-dance”, for example, or a hilarious rant about people who act as ‘parents’ to their own pets.
There’s more parallels to be drawn with this year’s Edinburgh show with Osborne – not least in the fact that both shows feature a vocal cameo from Kitson‘s long-term friend Isy Suttie. Both shows are about a longing for connection: for Polly, it’s a yearning for her late mother, and the only way she can deal with her grief is to speak to her answering machine. Kitson beautifully weaves these messages into his story, and the moment you realise what he’s building up, it’s impossible to stop the lump in your throat from rising.I loved the character of Nicholas, and at one point, I did wonder at times whether Kitson was going to audaciously reveal him to be a real-life Santa, but he’s far too canny to do that – instead, he recognises that the magic of Christmas is just that: magical. Like Nicole says, he’s so good at evoking those breathless times where the adult world didn’t seem to matter (I still remember a lovely little section from his stand-up set It’s The Fireworks Talking where he talks about the thrilling sensation of being awake as a child at 3am and thinking that you’re the only one still awake), which is what makes this such a perfect tale for Christmas.
I keep coming back to that sense of fun though: Kitson‘s outbreak of giggling after a particularly well-honed line, the off-mic beginning and end of the show as he rearranges the stage (another throwback to Analog.ue), or just the big grin and double thumbs-up he gives at the end as the story finishes. It’s little moments like this that balance out the story’s sadder aspects – and in a story that touches on loneliness, grief and the inevitability of death, there are plenty of those.It would be easy to imagine this tale being adapted for television and becoming a festive staple for many years to come – or, at least, you could do if Kitson ever did anything as conventional as television. It’s ironic that, throughout his career, Daniel Kitson has avoided performing Christmas shows – it turns out that he had the perfect one waiting for us all this time.
Nicole: I think one of things I noticed between seeing the piece between its WIP and the final version was the sheer amount of wonderful dialogue he had created for his characters which he probably knew he would cut. He just invents such rich characters that they could go on for days chatting and arguing and amusing an audience. But through his years of comedy and storytelling I think one of his strengths is his ability to set up all of this on a smart and solid structure. He makes this endlessly funny and loving talk go somewhere and with the callbacks and subtle breadcrumb trail we get payoffs that often sideswipe you. He is a master at setting up things you didn’t notice you noticed when you were not looking that suddenly come back and wallop your heart. And you realize, oh yeah they were there all along. How did I not see it? It’s easy to overlook his technical skill when you’re laughing and crying. Sometimes at the same time.
John: Oh absolutely. That’s one of the things I most admire about his writing, actually. I couldn’t get to a WIP of the Christmas show, but I always remember seeing Where Once Was Wonder in Edinburgh, and I was so glad I saw a preview of it first – it was only on the second time that I could appreciate all the callbacks (and in some cases, foreshadowing) that he managed to squeeze into that show. It’s the same with this show – I really admired the way he structured the show around Polly’s answerphone messages. It was only about halfway through the show, when she started referring to things that Kitson had mentioned at the start of the show that you started putting the pieces together. In a way, it’s like a jigsaw, and it’s only at the end you can appreciate just how brilliantly designed that jigsaw is.