John Kearns – The Varnishing Days: engaging flights of fancy (and baffling teeth)

Stand-up comedian John Kearns - David Monteith-Hodge
Stand-up comedian John Kearns - David Monteith-Hodge

“You gotta get a gimmick…” The soundtrack to Gypsy plays through the Bloomsbury Theatre speakers before John Kearns takes the stage.

Kearns got a gimmick when he started out in comedy 12 years ago, and has stuck with it: the Londoner performs in wobbly plastic teeth and a monk’s tonsure wig. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps he’s not wholly sure either. Like Spencer Jones’s hunchback, or Tommy Cooper’s fez, it takes him halfway towards being a fictional character. It’s a way of reminding us that “personal” is seven eighths persona, giving a bit of distance to his more autobiographical material – such as the anecdote about looking after his one-year-old son neatly woven throughout this curious show.

Kearns’s persona is that of a man resigned to life passing him by, a kind of millennial Tony Hancock. He’s 36 but sounds 63, wheezing with preemptive nostalgia. In one routine, he argues that you should start wearing aftershave in childhood, just to get a Proustian whiff of temps perdu each time you pass through a duty free shop. “Get into the smellies YOUNG!” he shouts. (He shouts everything.)

We follow him on flights of fancy where he drifts into other jobs, imagining himself as a Trapeze artist, or a restaurateur. These are the strongest parts, funny but suffused with a strange wistfulness. There are one or two laugh-out-loud routines – a bit about Marco Pierre White’s boiled potatoes is comic cordon bleu – but his defiantly glacial pacing prevents the laughter from really snowballing.

Critics and fellow comics revere Kearns – he’s the only stand-up ever to have won two Edinburgh Comedy Awards. I left this show gently charmed, but without understanding the adulation. I wonder if what the wig conceals is a comic who’s not really such a weird one-off, so much as an approachable blend of Daniel Kitson’s storytelling, Spencer Jones’s clownish sentimentality, idiot-savant philosopher-poet Rob Auton, and the prickly mateyness of Tim Key.

Kearns’s fanbase had been devoted but small until his (wigless) stint on Taskmaster last year. He’s ambivalent about his new name-recognition: “Ticket sales go up, but the laughs, they go down.” The opening stretch of this touring show is about that brush with near-fame, while the much of the hour circles around questions about art, popularity, and compromise – via a mini-lecture on Van Gogh. (Starry Night, he says, is “a proper starry night, dandruff-on-a-seat-belt proper”.)

Van Gogh never found buyers for his brilliant but idiosyncratic paintings; we’re invited to draw a parallel with Kearns’s niche appeal. But I suspect that niche is broader than he thinks.

John Kearns is at Soho Theatre from June 19-24;