Ken – Review

Jeremy Stockwell & Terry Johnson in Ken. Images Robert Day.

The Arts are notorious for attracting eccentrics. It’s the nature of the beast. But, seekers, there are some oddballs whose brilliance and genius for originality and innovation have a remarkable ability to leave a lasting impression.

Both playwright and former actor, Terry Johnson, and performer/ actor and clown, Jeremy Stockwell have never been able to shake off the legacy of working with surreal theatre maverick, and one-off, Ken Campbell.

Fringe darling, surrealist, comic actor, writer, director and prankster, his off-the-wall approach to life and work made him unique and unforgettable.

Now Johnson has returned to the stage of London’s Bunker Theatre with Ken after premiering this hilarious and irreverent show at Hampstead Theatre in 2016.

Ken is, to borrow from its marketing, “a freewheeling reminiscence of a turbulent and inspiring relationship between two theatrical mavericks”.

It’s hard to define Ken. This two-hander is more than a monologue and less than a full-scale dramatic production.

Terry Johnson steps up to the podium to deliver a tale about how their lives crossed and the effect it had on both of them.

He’s aided by Jeremy Stockwell, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Campbell, who also had a run-in with the experimental theatre non-conformist.

Ken Campbell is likely to have attracted only niche interest by the general public during his lifetime. A lot of people won’t have any idea who he was and, I have to admit, that I’m too young to have felt or seen his influence in theatre.

Some may know him for staging the original theatre production of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which was a an over-ambitious disaster when it first premiered in the late 1970s.

An older generation, or those in the profession, will recall his epic nine-hour adaptation of the science-fiction trilogy, Illuminatus!.

It was followed by his colossal 24-hour staging of poet/ artist Neil Oram’s The Warp at the Edinburgh Fringe with unknown actors Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent, still, officially, the world’s longest play (and was that Oram himself I saw sitting at the back of the audience, enjoying the memories, on Thursday night?).

Campbell was never without ambition. Nothing was beyond him, provided it could be staged on a shoestring.

Ken starts out in the early 1970s. A young, long-haired, Terry Johnson had borrowed a friend’s flat to try and write his first play when he received a phone call late one night.

Ken had been looking for the flat’s actor-owner, but settled on having Terry come around to a party where a load of arty types were smoking weed and throwing together a piece of avant garde theatre.

For 90 minutes Johnson regales his audience with Campbell’s extraordinary life, aided by Stockwell, as the Pork Pie hat-wearing, bushy eye-browed provocateur of outlandish comic and sci-fi theatre.

It’s riotously funny, occasionally uncomfortable, always engaging and brilliantly told from a double act who work incredibly well together.

One true and incredible anecdote, told by Johnson, involves Campbell, who had just been to see the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby, deciding that the Royal Shakespeare Company should drop the Bard and concentrate on Dickens.

The theatre world was flooded with hoax invitations from the then RSC’s artistic director, Trevor Nunn, to come aboard the newly formed Royal Dickens Company.

Offers were made to actors on meticulously reproduced company notepaper, all apparently signed by Nunn (“Love, Trev”). After a couple of weeks of panic and speculation in the press, Campbell owned up.

Johnson’s tribute, directed with a clear passion for her subject’s unorthodox life, by Lisa Spirling, is warm, affectionate and as strange and offbeat at the subject himself.

Stockwell is nothing short of remarkable in his impersonation, from the Denis Healey eyebrows to his mannerisms and drawling, nasal, Essex voice.

He plonks himself in the audience and engages with those around him before interjecting in Johnson’s beautifully written oration to add moments of improv.

“I’m buried in Epping Forest,” he says at the end. “Apparently you can be.”

Superb.

Ken runs (with Tim Shortall’s very comfortable staging and set design) at the Bunker Theatre until February 24.

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