Ken Campbell was a true maverick – it’s a shame Ken, the play, isn’t.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Ken Campbell, the truly original and unclassifiable theatre-maker. To those fond of or familiar to the character, the play is a reminiscent reminder of his ways and his plays. To those new to him, it is a crash course in the brilliant, the bonkers and the bonking of the late 1970s.
Following a highly successful run at Hampstead Downstairs Ken opens at the fresh-faced Bunker Theatre in Southwark. On paper, the pairing makes perfect sense: Ken would have loved the converted underground garage that The Bunker sits within, and its repertory has – in just over a year – emerged as defiant, different and unabashedly new. However, much like many of Campbell’s seemingly supreme ideas, something doesn’t quite click.
The crux of the problem lies in the concept and conceit of Ken itself: the evening could have been given a more Campbellian twist by being called Ken by Terry by Terry Johnson. Johnson’s script is hugely detailed and lightly entertaining but reads so much more like a biography than living like a play. It fails the fundamental rule of “show, don’t tell”. Johnson – as writer and performer – spends ninety minutes literally reading to us from a history book.
When Campbell is brought (back) to life, he is never animated with action – just by interjection or ejaculation. Whilst Johnson and Campbell’s relationship was touching and nuanced, it is reflective, despondent, and mulls in the heart in a way that begs for the pages of a book. Johnson, far more traditionalist in his artistry than Campbell, lacks the artistic flare to illustrate his content by its form.
There is perhaps nothing less Ken Campbell than a linear, autoethnographic retelling and regaling of his life. Where are the alien costumes? The lasers? The pseudo-eulogy delivery could have been exploited so much further – and so much better. We’re told the funeral took place in a tiny chapel in a wood, with the audience spilling out onto plastic chairs outside. Why weren’t we there? Why wasn’t this a truly immersive, spellbinding experience? Why did it feel like a true-life John Godber?
There is little to be said of Terry Johnson’s performance as he is, quite simply, Terry Johnson. He cannot be criticised for being himself. Jeremy Stockwell is light to Johnson’s dark. He breathes life back into Campbell, and is as infuriating, engaging, confusing, concerning and endearing as the one-of-a-kind himself.
It is touching that great friends and former collaborators Johnson and Stockwell have sought to memorialise Campbell in this way. The ninety-minute ceremony, for them, should never end – but for the rest of the audience it is a good twenty minutes too long and the definition of “you had to be there”.
Lisa Spirling, recently appointed Artistic Director at Theatre503, is at the helm. Her direction is fun, light and straightforward. It does exactly what it says on the tin – nothing more, nothing less, being constrained to said tin by the form and content of the original text.
By far the most interesting element of the production is Tim Shorthall’s design that consumes the theatre, rejecting Johnson’s constraints. The hodge-podge seating of The Bunker is complimented by giant pillows, cabaret tables and a sea of never-ending orange carpet. Mark Dymock’s lighting is perfectly sufficient whilst John Leonard’s foley-style sound design puts the final nail in the aesthetic coffin that brands this production Ayckbourn rather than Abromovich.
Ken will introduce a brand new audience to Ken Campbell – via The Bunker – and a brand new audience to The Bunker via Ken Campbell. For this, it must be applauded. However, for a more thrilling ride, try Nina Conti’s 2012 docu-mocu-mentary – or for a briefer one, Campbell’s Wikipedia page.