Ken

Terry Johnson

Hampstead Theatre

The Bunker

From 24 January 2018 to 24 February 2018

Review by Philip Fisher

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Ken Campbell was the ultimate eccentric, living and working in a kind of parallel world that often veered far away from the one occupied by the rest of us.

However, there was a charm in his eccentricity, meaning that he could effortlessly attract actors and writers to his projects and women into his bed.

40 years ago, as a callow 23-year-old with time on his hands, distinguished playwright Terry Johnson first flitted across the Campbell radar. Having had some acting experience, he somehow got sucked into a project that subsequently became legendary, thereby taking the place of a departing actor by the name of Jim Broadbent, certainly heading for different and arguably better things.

The Warp was a Joycean meander through the mind of a long-forgotten man of the world, which debuted in a converted Edinburgh cinema. The first half of this 90-minute memorial relates the tale of the 24-hour play, which was more of a “happening” than a standard theatrical work, using the perspective of one of its junior combatants.

In simple terms, this was like a staged version of a young man’s dream of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, designed to amuse its creator Ken Campbell, the participants and, if they so chose, audience members who could drift in and out, in every case but one reputedly falling asleep in the wee small hours less than one third of the way through the performance.

The story is now related in a space that has been set up by designer Tim Shortall to resemble an orange-carpeted souk, allowing spectators to lounge on sofas or lie prostrate with head supported by cushions if they prefer this to standard seating further back. To create the right hippie-style image, there is a dizzying backdrop which owes much to Bridget Riley.

Johnson plays himself sporting what looks like a Mexican Day of the Dead shirt alongside another friend of Ken, Jeremy Stockwell. The latter not only uncannily impersonates the great man, eyebrows and all, but then extends his repertoire to almost the whole of the Campbell entourage. Together, they continuously maintain just the right balance between glee, hilarity, pathos and even a touch of tragedy, particularly when they use the second half to relate the later stages of the Campbell life story.

If it wasn’t true, nobody would believe the story of The Warp, and after a brief comical interlude, the rest of the biography is almost equally far-fetched.

After a disastrous attempt to bring The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to life on stage for an audience of 3,000 male anoraks, the evening hits its comic peak with recollections of Ken’s creation of the mythical Royal Dickens Company, causing much discomfort to Sir Trevor Nunn.

The final stages provide anecdotes of Ken Campbell from the perspectives of Johnson and Stockwell, rounding off the tale of a wonderful character whose absence from the theatrical community is still mourned today.

Ken is not only a labour of love written in rich, evocative language but also a gloriously entertaining theatrical experience that should draw large audiences to The Bunker to get some much-needed cheer in the darkest month of the year.