Daniel Kitson: We Are Gathered Here, Playhouse, Oxford

Death (and life) become him
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The Independent Culture

When I last saw the bittersweet maestro Daniel Kitson, he was preaching to the converted in London's Union Chapel and I remember thinking how comparatively chipper the former Perrier winner was. Until seeing the full version of his latest work, however, I had no idea that it was because the scruffy 32-year-old performer had been through the mills of existentialism and nihilism and come out the other end thinking that, as he puts it: "If I see a Diem it is getting Carpe'd."

The early and protracted death of Kitson's Down's syndrome aunt earlier this year is the genesis of his emotional maelstrom. "How can you make death funny?" he asks on our behalf. "Strap in" is his teasing answer, using one of his favoured Americanisms that sound so wonderfully incongruous coming out of the mouth of this Derbyshire man. "Do you think that the Grim Reaper was less frightening in the days when everyone had a scythe?" he asks us next, assuring us of his ability to toy with death.

After some throwaway swings at the Reaper, he charts the sapping of meaning away from his life with the declining condition of his aunt, but he does so while flagging up "points of light in the abyss". To further cheat death, or at least agitate it a little, Kitson states that his preferred demise would be to be hit by a train because: "It would really clear your head – at least for a tiny bit." Delving further into his psyche, the comedian confronts further irrationalities such as his phobia of witches: "never kiss a witch" is on the list of three "things I think are funny when I say them in a row."

Like the slaves to his rhythm he knows we are, the audience lap up the routines that are the life in the midst of death. One such routine is Kitson's confession that he is emotionally involved with food and that, like an eloquent Joey Tribbiani, he thinks nothing of accepting a challenge from a waiter to eat Paella for two. The subsequent lack of Kitson's appetite, literally and metaphorically, in the face of the mortality of his relative sees him narrowly avoid seeking solace in junk food. It's a turning point, because he starts to see that both his own predilections and those he abhors in others have all lost their meaning.

Despite the apparent burden of the driving narrative of the show, the tone is never far away from jaunty (so much so that you can even see Kitson half-skip with glee at certain points) and so when he is resurrected by life's positives they don't at all seem out of place. As ever with Kitson, it is life's simple, often domesticated, pleasures that are its triumphs, describing his new found elation as "the feeling you get when you have something in the oven and you have done the washing up."

For tour details see: www.danielkitson.com