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Analog.Ue, theatre review: Daniel Kitson's new show has pleasing bite

National Theatre, London

“Committed contrariness” is how Daniel Kitson describes his new theatre show at one point. It’s a description that could just as easily be applied to much of his career so far.

Kitson, the comedians’ favourite comedian, is a stand-up who rarely does stand-up. If he does, his gigs tend to be top-secret, last-minute affairs, held in odd venues in the morning or well after midnight. He sells tickets through his own mail-outs, spurns arenas and television shows and refuses to engage with the press.

His last theatre show at the Edinburgh Fringe As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title, consisted of him sitting at a desk on stage and reading his just-finished script from front page to back.  

Now with Analog.Ue, his second show at the National Theatre, he has produced a play for the vast Lyttelton stage in which he does not say a word. Or rather he says plenty of words – many of them, as is the Kitson way, strung together in lovingly wrought combinations that delight and surprise – but all of them are recorded on tape. And not just one tape but 46 different ones (the number has absolutely no significance, he tells us), played out on 30 or so vintage machine that he has spent the last year acquiring on eBay.

These tape decks people the stage rather beautifully, each one lighting up when it is its turn to talk. Kitson is there, too, scuttling about in the dark with a torch in his mouth, plugging in machines, checking volume levels, waddling to the back of the stage to pick up an extension lead and every so often sitting down to have a mug of tea. It is a technically precarious, largely bonkers enterprise but again as is the Kitson way, it all comes together in the end.

As with his last National show, It’s Always Right Now Until It’s Later, Analog.Ue is a multi-strand narrative which holds everyday trivia and existential angst in tragicomic tension. It is, says the man on the tape, a piece about “time, possibility, love and natural yoghurt”. In a suburban garage in 1977, an old man called Thomas is spending the day recording everything that comes into his head to please his wife Gertie on her birthday. In a tiny flat in 2013 Trudy is measuring out her lonely life in yoghurt spoons and baked potatoes. And then there is Daniel Kitson the performer, who makes occasional meta-intrusions to explain the show.

This is on one level a love letter to tape, a sentimental medium Kitson takes full advantage of, switching between different machines to give his distinctive voice a variety of timbres. It is also a mind-stretching, occasionally heart-aching study of loneliness, memory and how humans leave their mark. If Tree, his last play about two men killing time beneath a tree was his homage to Waiting for Godot, this is surely his callback to Krapp’s Last Tape.

Kitson is right at home spinning his odd little tales of loneliness and love – the latter is “like tasting butter for the first time, after 43 years of margarine” – but the stories of Thomas and Trudy feel like well-trodden territory for him, verging on the twee.

Far more compelling is the strand about Kitson the performer - “the oddly public solitude” of being a comedian, the “grubby” feeling that comes from regurgitating every life experience live on stage. These segments put glitches in the smooth running of the tapes and give the show its pleasing bite. Kitson may profess to dislike mining the “lunatic museum” of his life for our entertainment but long may he continue to do so.

To 20 March in rep (020 7452 3000)