A John Kearns Christmas

Gig review by Steve Bennett at Battersea Arts Centre, London

There’s something about the ritualism of Christmas, both unwaveringly familiar yet a strange departure from normal life, that well suits John Kearns’s suburban surrealism.

On one level, Kearns’s stage persona could be the pub regular with his petty grumbles about domestic and local life. Yet such mundanity is refracted through his snow-globe of absurdity.

The cornerstones of this new show are recordings he made of the inane, confused conversations his family had over the turkey in 2011 and 2012; the semi-forgetful digressions about mushy peas worthy of the tedious conversations that the Spitting Image version John Major had with his grey wife Norma. You can see from these scenes of domestic tedium where Kearns gets his inspiration from.

A John Kearns Christmas – his first new show since scooping the Edinburgh Comedy Award last year – is an affectionate, if teasing, tribute to that background. From a starting point of writing Christmas cards summing up his year, he plays up the naivity of his bewildered alter-ego, genuinely thrilled to be receiving clementines in his stocking or imagining himself riding in Santa’s sleigh.

Such musings on festive traditions are allowed to meander into offbeat stand-up routines about his personal trailer, Pavel, or perceiving Jeremy Corbyn as a nice guy, but not someone you’d want as your grandfather, Kearns’s peculiar version of political satire. In truth, not all these tangents pay off compared to the central festive theme, and he acknowledges a Ready Steady Cook-based flight of fantasy went several steps too far.

But that’s all part of the ongoing commentary about his own work; mocking the decision to don a daft wig and ill-fitting teeth that he continues to persist with or emphasising his reputation for being odd. He tells us he was asked to write for Romesh Ranganathan, proving he could conjure up proper jokes if he chose to. ‘Keep that in the back of your mind,’ he tells us up front, underlining that this sometimes doleful monologue is a creative choice.

Stage Kearns is indeed an absurd, outsider creation, spurning the ‘just like you’ mateyness of many of his stand-up peers. But he is very much grounded in a very familiar world of limited horizons and simple pleasures – a world he can wistfully appreciate as the real Kearns dares to entertain greater ambition. There’s resonance with this time of year, as age-old Christmas traditions sit beside the hopeful possibilities of the new year. This is not by any means a normal festive show, but it is an apt one.

Review date: 9 Dec 2016
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Battersea Arts Centre

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