Kevin Eldon, Baillie Gifford Main Theatre, Saturday 16th August, 2014
By Mark Bolsover
A crowd of mixed age and class gathered for Eldon’s reading. It was not the typical, predominantly middle class, audience that might be expected of daytime Book Festival events. A lot more of the audience here seemed to be drawn for a comedy event and, understandably, from Eldon’s own fan base (though it was, interestingly, an exclusively white audience). This gave the event an initially slightly spikier atmosphere than other Book Festival events.
The focus was Eldon’s new book, My Prefect Cousin: A Short Biography of Paul Hamilton. The central conceit of the book is a clever and intriguing one. Playing on his established character comedy, Eldon constructs the figure of what Stewart Lee has described as ‘a certain strange aspect of the British counter culture over the last 30 years’.—‘Paul Hamilton’ is a deluded middle class, conservative, pseudo-liberal with pretensions toward being a ‘political’ performance poet. His affectations and lack of self-awareness form the foundations for an acidic satire on a very specific element in poetry, but more broadly in grass-roots and performance arts. In ‘My Prefect Cousin’, Eldon transfers his stand-up and character comedy to a mock-biography format, with ‘Kevin Eldon’ presenting his cousin’s ‘work’ and narrating his (parodic) life.
The event effectively staged the structure of the book (and actually its cover art), deliberately playing on the Festival’s staple reading–talk format. Employing the conceit of Hamilton’s having fallen out with Eldon over the book and therefore refusing to share the stage with him, allowed Eldon to split his performance between the two characters/voices of the book. He took to the stage first as ‘Paul Hamilton’, giving readings of Hamilton’s ‘work’ in character, and deriding his Cousin ‘Kevin Eldon’s’ presentation of him and his life in the book.
Eldon’s dry, dead pan performance and delivery as ‘Hamilton’ was excellent.
‘Hamilton’ having left the stage, Eldon returned as ‘Kevin Eldon’. His performance here felt slightly flatter. It was clear that ‘Eldon’, though clearly an adopted character distinct from Eldon himself, had not benefited from the same development as ‘Hamilton’. The character came across as a slightly bemused and put down figure, not really having anything of great comic value in himself, but merely a foil for the ‘Hamilton’ material.
As chair for the event, Ryan Van Winkle was one of its highlights. he did brilliantly to play along with Eldon’s stagy scenario and was genuinely charming and funny in himself. Given his own status as a poet and emerging darling of the Edinburgh literary scene, he did well to take the slightly snide pot shots at performance poets and artists.
Though the conceit benefits from Eldon’s obvious talent, the problem is that there is really only one joke here—that of the figure of the self-deluded, conservatively snobbish, and pretentious wanker. Eldon often ran the risk of simply explaining the joke as it was merely repeated, thinly embellished and laboured over the course of the event, rather than developed. Indeed, it is difficult to see how it could be developed any further.
It is important to offer a qualification of Lee’s praise. The element of ‘counter culture’ critiqued and parodied here is undeniably (and exclusively) English, and, far more specifically, operates within the very narrow orbit of London. It is not clear that it does indeed have broader cultural weight or heft, Eldon’s infrequent and rather cheap and forced references to Scotland over the course of the event being unconvincing in as far as this goes.
The point—about a pseudo-liberal, conservative and pretentious type in the arts—is well made, but the underlying assumption that the type is either prevalent or influential enough to merit this kind of sustained attack is unconvincing.
The swipes or digs here were little too easy and obvious and lack the strange (often disturbing), but very effective edge of Eldon’s live comedy work. There was a certain charmless crudity, including an odd (and, again, cheap and easy) misogyny (including a cheap, shameful, and superfluous fat joke, which really is beneath someone of Eldon’s comedic calibre), as well as a laboured, tongue-in-cheek parody of straight-laced Radio 4.
Despite Eldon’s excellent comedic performance style, the material couldn’t sustain the narrow scope of the conceit. Eldon, and the material, risked seeming to harbour a genuine contempt for poets and for poetry generally, though, ironically, the writing of his parody of experimental performance poetry seemed to suffer from most of the excesses he (rightly) excoriated. It would have been easy to come away with more sympathy for the type Eldon seeks to satirise, rather than the satire itself, which remained (uncharacteristically for Eldon) crude, cynical, one-dimensional, and somewhat weak.
It was not clear, ultimately, that the conceit of ‘My Prefect Cousin’ actually had the depth and life to carry it through the hour for which the event lasted, let alone the length of a (fairly substantial) book. The one joke here was laboured—to the point that it necessitated Eldon’s having to effectively read half of the text during the event.
The audience, obviously very (and exclusively) familiar with Eldon’s work, responded well to his performance, but there was no noticeable uncontrolled hilarity or belly laughs. Indeed Eldon and the capable Van Winkle struggled to elicit any questions following the performance, resorting at times to simply name-checking famous comedians in the audience. In effect, the hour seemed to thoroughly exhaust the material (and again this might be a worrying prospect for those picking up the book), and the question session was flat and superfluous.
Eldon somewhat squandered his obvious gifts and intelligence on the one, rather crude one-dimensional joke, and the cheap, easy shots on display here. Whether his edgy surrealism can effectively transfer to the page without seeming too forced, and whether ‘My Prefect Cousin’ can genuinely sustain the thin conceit of its character are questions that remain to be answered.