Me and Mr C, St Stephen’s

Originally written for Exeunt.

This show, we are told from the outset, might be a bit shit. It’s improvised, you see, and performer Gary Kitching can’t make any promises. Some nights it’s good, some nights it’s bad. Unlike most theatre, we are encouraged to start from a position of deflated expectations.

To review this piece of theatre, therefore, is to tell a small lie. The performance I saw was unique to the specific number of audience members in the space, the personalities and experiences that those audience members brought into the room, the particular mood of Kitching as a performer and the thoughts that floated to the fore of his mind in that 50 minutes. It might be argued that every performance is specific to the performative moment, but improvised performance is more specific than most. So, acknowledging my limitations at the off, I would like to follow Kitching’s lead and lower any expectations from this piece of criticism.

Of two things, however, we can be fairly certain. The “me” of the title is Kitching, emerging as a lonely wannabe comedian, and the Mr C is his fiery haired ventriloquist dummy, possibly the most terrifying prop to grace a stage at the fringe this year. This pairing is a nod to comedy convention, following in the tradition of Keith Harris and Orville, but that is where the piece’s conformity ends.

Kitching’s principal trick is to upturn expectations, both comedic and theatrical. As Kitching ever more despairingly attempts to engage in conversation, the ventriloquist dummy, usually the loquacious linchpin of a comedy double act, remains obstinately silent. During the comedy club interludes in which Kitching’s aspiring stand-up comedian is steadily broken, the audience is actively invited and even taught how to heckle – in fact, we are told, we will ruin the show if we don’t – inviting ever more inventive jeers from the crowd.

The extent to which the audience truly determines the piece is, unsurprisingly, limited. There is a sort of formula to the show that Kitching has shaped, one that relies on certain inputs but that calculates these into an answer that one suspects does not greatly vary. The audience interaction that Kitching does cultivate, however, slots fluidly into the piece and rarely falters thanks to a performance that puts us oddly at ease but never lets us switch off.

Where the role of the audience really becomes interesting, though, is when the piece takes a darker turn. Viciously plucking at the sinister undertones that have lingered throughout, Kitching car crashes closer and closer to destruction, releasing a raging torrent of self-hatred. With startling suddenness, the flavour of the audience’s involvement shifts without prompting, as sensitive a barometer as any to the mood of the work. Within moments, what has thus far been lightly, intelligently entertaining is transformed into an altogether blacker and more poignant proposition. It might not smash the low expectations that Kitching sets us, but it certainly exceeds them.

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