When John Kearns corpses, is he coming out of character? It happens on a few occasions during his current Soho theatre gig, and – even though I know the official line on Kearns’ act, which is “it’s not a character: it’s me” – these moments feel like a glimpse behind the curtain. For the uninitiated, Kearns is a double Edinburgh comedy award winner, the only act ever to win best newcomer and best show. He performs in party-shop false teeth and a tonsure wig and is frequently compared to Tony Hancock because his shtick is suburban loserdom and plangent existentialism, the minutiae of a humdrum life mined for flights of poetry and meek heroism.
On first encounter you’d guess the costume signified a character, but it quickly becomes clear that things aren’t that simple. Kearns makes reference to his silly outfit, and to its distancing effect, while telling stories ostensibly about his own life. He doesn’t explain the get-up – not on stage, at least. In interviews, he’s described the wig and teeth as enabling him to find his comic voice: he hides himself to reveal himself. The closest analogy might be the Welsh accent Mark Watson deployed when he started in standup. It wasn’t a character, it wasn’t a lie – it was the voice Watson needed to liberate his funniness and find confidence.
Watson shelved the accent when he no longer needed it, but there’s no suggestion Kearns will do the same. He told me in 2014 that he felt “very lucky” to have found the thing that makes him funny. “There is no way I’m ditching it.” Onstage this week, he claims to relish the uncertainty generated by his sort-of disguise. “You don’t know what’s true up here,” he tells us. “I like that.”
But this was the first time I saw him and wondered – just wondered – whether he should ditch it. That only partly reflects the limitations to his current shtick. It also relates to how good he’s become. For me, Don’t Worry They’re Here is Kearns’ best show yet. It’s better structured and more narratively satisfying than the two that bagged him awards. The persona has bedded down. Whereas the earlier shows had poignant moments, this one advances a whole poignant philosophy.
It’s triggered (spoiler-phobes, look away now) by a visit to the bookies Kearns made this January, to bet on a horse that won in dramatic fashion – then promptly died. That provokes wistful ruminating from Kearns on what life is all about, as he haunts his local greasy spoon, belatedly cashes in a massage voucher and dreams up a sweet-shop. Now and again he thinks he’s cracked it, urging us to share in the wonderment he gets from life’s more mundane items. But melancholy is only ever kept at bay temporarily, and latterly a friend’s emigration and wedding casts our host’s joy into eclipse.
That final section feels the most candid, the least “in character”. You’d swear Kearns dials down his heightened south London squawk here. Certainly he removes his wig, with odd solemnity, like a hat at a funeral. Is this an admission that, for the emotional intimacy to really register, he’s got to drop the disguise? That’s certainly what the Times’ Dominic Maxwell, thinks, arguing that his “mask frustrates as much as it enables”. How can you take his “bittersweet meditation on life” seriously when he won’t even step out from behind this shabby clown headgear?
I enjoyed the show more than Maxwell, but he’s right that Kearns’ wig and teeth operate as a mask. They add up to (or suggest) a more profound concealment of the self than, say, Tommy Cooper’s fez – and so insulate us a little from the emotional effects he might otherwise achieve. Watching Kearns, I love the incongruousness, I laugh at the jokes and marvel at the brilliant bathos of it all. But his act doesn’t pierce the heart as it might were he not playing his little games of truth and fiction, character and not-character.
I’m not necessarily advocating Kearns put the fancy-dress accessories away. He may lose more than he’d gain, and I’d lose the pleasure of watching this odd spectacle in action, this clash of dorky dentistry, Friar Tuck barnet and tapering suburban tragicomedy. OK, so full emotional engagement is withheld. But watching Kearns leads you to ask where in this artform personality stops and persona begins, at what point exaggeration shades into fiction – and why self-disclosure might be both enabled and limited by a monk’s hairdo and a set of plastic buck teeth.