Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Wednesday 15th (part 2)
As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title (Daniel Kitson)
Daniel Kitson’s new play features some familiar themes – loneliness, what we owe to each other, the nature of commitment - but he has also chosen to add new ones, in a deliberate effort to undermine these Kitsonesque features of his work. Not only do we get the story of an old man and a nurse trying to understand each other, we also meet the writers creating their story, and the writers of their story. The immediate result of these metafictional layers is to fragment the story and prevent the kind of resonance between narratives which enriches Kitson’s best work.
The text not only undermines itself, it also (predictably enough) features a debate about the wisdom of this move. Reflexivity mightn’t be as awful as one of Kitson’s alter egos claims, but in this specific case it doesn’t seem to work. First, its predominance means that a lot of the show involves Kitson doing the kind of play-about-writing-a-play routine which many other performers and writers have done. Unsurprisingly, it feels much less distinctive than his other work, and indeed laboured. It is undoubtedly brave of him to subvert his modus operandi and frustrate his audience in this way, but the result is a show which is neither as funny nor as emotionally charged as his best theatrical pieces.
Second, the problems caused by reflexivity are arguably more serious in a theatrical piece then in other forms of comedy. Reflexivity usually involves a certain amount of creative destruction; the jokes, ideas or characters are usually commented on in order to be rejected as contrived, artificial, or just plain fictional. This is not such a problem if what is rejected is not something particularly crucial anyway. Stand-up about the mechanics of stand-up or sketches about sketch troupes each undermine the original jokes or ideas which are made the objects of humour. But in As of 1.52pm GMT..., what is in effect being undermined is a much more developed story, which requires that the audience invest a lot more attention and emotion in order to appreciate it properly. This may well be Kitson’s intention, but if so in fulfilling it he paradoxically condemns his show to failure.
Every year the Fringe hosts a handful of sketch troupes promising to do some different with the venerable Oxbridge-graduates-and-silly-voices form. The Pin, three former Cambridge Footlights, are this year’s model. It’s relatively common to tell a single story through different sketches. The Pin’s twist on this formula is to play with the narrative structure, jumping backwards and occasionally forwards to show the origin and result of each scene. There’s no doubting the cleverness of the writing and the precise staging required to make this work, but this cleverness and precision seems to me to be at the service of a gimmick rather than a genuine development of the form.
It’s worth contrasting what The Pin do with the more widespread use of longer narratives running through a series of sketches. The latter can generate extra laughs when the links between sketches are revealed, or it can give the show as a whole an emotional or dramatic depth which individual sketches could not carry. I didn’t notice either of these resulting from The Pin’s playing with chronology. What it adds to the individual sketches are explanations of their starting points (e.g., why a character goes out to do a favour for the old man downstairs, why the old man’s window gets broken, etc.). The sketches themselves are the usual mixed bag – some excellent ideas (I particularly liked the Italian waiter who gradually drove a blissful couple to break up) alongside less inspired fare. But explaining their characters in this way, through potted back stories, didn’t make them funnier, or add much by way of dramatic irony or pathos. Failing a very different approach to the sketches themselves, I don’t see how it could.