As a performer who made his name as a comedian, Daniel Kitson knows well that spontaneous engagement with an audience is the essence of a live act. It may seem downright perverse of him, then, given the run of the Lyttelton stage, to come up with a drama in which he never speaks live but retreats behind the recorded voice. But then at the crux of this curious, touching piece is the question of what remains of a lived life when it has ended and of the relationship between experience and story. The recorded voice is key to that exploration. It’s a funny, melancholic, oddball show: it feels like something that Samuel Beckett and Alan Bennett might have unearthed, left to poke about in a junk shop together.
There are three narrative strands to the piece. One concerns a September day in 1977 when an elderly man bumbles about in his garage, trying to commit his thoughts about his life to tape. The second details a lonely day in the life of a woman who, some 35 years later, has come across one of the tapes he left behind and become obsessed with his voice. The third strand comes from Kitson himself, explaining how he composed the show, and musing on loneliness, the “public solitude” and artifice of performance and the purpose of storytelling.
Each of these strands is delivered, in fragments, on magnetic tape, scattered around several dozen vintage machines. It is then, a live show and quite a precarious one, as Kitson scuttles about the stage in the dark, lining up the tape decks and setting them going at exactly the right time to continue the narrative. It’s determinedly potty, but there is something pleasing about watching Kitson coaxing his antiquated machines into life like a solicitous nurse with a ward of reluctant patients. The significance of this pre-digital technology becomes clear too: these machines have been rendered obsolete, the tape itself physical and liable to decay, and their presence contributes to Kitson’s rumination on the way objects and memories interact.
The show is overlong, the stories stray rather too often over the borderline between touching and twee, and Kitson’s writing is too ornate in places: there’s far more alliteration here than is good for the piece. But at its best, this poignant show approaches the odd business of living and dying with wry humour and bleak honesty.