Writer: Terry Johnson
Director: Lisa Spirling
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
The Bunker has become a warm place of refuge during these cold Winter evenings. Warmth radiates from Terry Johnson’s affectionate remembrance of the rogue East London theatre-maker and performer Ken Campbell, who died aged 66 in 2006; warmth also comes from the transformed theatre itself, freshly carpeted throughout, decorated by a multitude of glowing lampshades and by cushions scattered everywhere for the audience’s comfort. Tim Shortall’s design makes us part of a Bohemian artistic community in the 1970s.
Lisa Spirling’s production was first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 2016. Johnson who has written about several eccentric figures in British comedy in his successful plays, had his first encounter with Ken in 1978. Then a struggling 23-year-old writer and actor, Johnson spoke to Ken on the telephone by chance, displayed his mastery of accents and was told “Jim Broadbent has f***ed off, so you’ve got the part”. What follows is a string of longish anecdotes detailing what, to most of us, would be the nightmare of being anywhere near Ken.
As did Alan Bennett’s in his play about a larger-than-life character from his own past, The Lady in the Van, Johnson puts himself at the centre and plays himself too. He stands behind a lectern, looking and sounding every bit as dull and suburban as he is described in his text. This makes him the perfect straight man to Jeremy Stockwell’s outrageous, tyrannical clown, Ken, first seen wearing a pen-filled sleeveless jacket over a Dennis the Menace jumper.
The stories are “not entirely true” warns Johnson, adding that the least believable are likely to be the truest. The writer’s great skill for shaping jokes serves him better than his gift for delivering them, while Stockwell (who was once directed by the real Ken at the National Theatre), bounces around among the audience like a leprechaun on acid. A fair amount of ad-libbing helps the fun to keep rolling along.
The centrepiece story revolves around a 24-hour-long production in a derelict Odeon cinema for the Edinburgh Festival. Johnson’s play runs for a much more reasonable 90 minutes straight through (Ken “can’t be doing with” intervals). Ken is also seen to be a very mischievous prankster, his attempt to change the name of the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Royal Dickens Company forcing a televised denial from Trevor Nunn. His disrespect for tired traditions and conventions of British theatre and, indeed, British life, continued to the end and his practical joking extended to his own funeral.
As memories of Ken Campbell fade, the question burns as to whether he made any lasting impact on British theatre. Johnson’s play suggests the answer with a neat metaphor, pointing out that you only need to move a tiller by a small fraction for the boat to eventually end up on a different continent. Perhaps the true worth of the unique Ken is still to be evaluated.
Runs until 24 February 2018 | Image: Robert Day