FringeReview UK 2018
Revived from Hampstead Theatre’s riotous 2016 run, it’s directed by Lisa Spirling (and at the Bunker by Katie Pesskin). Ken’s designed by Tim Shortall: Hampstead Theatre’s The Bunker is transformed into a lectern with gags where the audience lounge in a comfy horseshoe of pouffes, sofas and café tables and chairs. They’re not safe. Stockwell circles and cajoles them menacingly. No, there isn’t a fight arranger or choreographer. Mark Dymock’s tenebrous lighting and John Leonard’s sound smoulder with the Seventies. Till February 24th.
So you’re writing your first Royal Court play at twenty-three, all about a dead zoo. Promising? The Court like the idea. Then there’s a ghost of a lion’s roar that haunts Ken too, a bit differently. You’re called up by someone asking for a departed flatmate but after imitating a South African Geordie you have Jim Broadbent’s part in the twenty-two hour play, the longest ever written. Play? The Warp’s written and directed by Ken Campbell: the apparition with eyebrows like grey Victorian moustaches turned upside down and combat trousers for philosophical conflicts in Hampstead. Welcome to the world of Ken. It changed Johnson forever. So what about us?
Both Terry Johnson, who’s written this two-hander playing himself, and Jeremy Stockwell worked with Ken. It shows. Not only have the two men instant access to the high-impact theatrical jinks and whirligig of Ken’s precise anarchy, they’ve both an uncanny knack for channelling the way his aesthetic changed them forever. ‘D’you Ken.. beyond our Ken’ all these kennings find an avatar beyond language. Both actors – Stockwell naturally plays Ken and a host of other characters – are sealed of the tribe of Ken. No amount of mainstream BAFTAs, Tonys and Oliviers for Johnson is allowed to obscure this.
Revived from Hampstead Theatre’s riotous 2016 run, it’s directed by Lisa Spirling and at the Bunker by Katie Pesskin. Ken’s designed by Tim Shortall: Hampstead Theatre’s The Bunker is transformed into a lectern with gags – Johnson bounces off a script adroitly – where the audience lounge in a comfy horseshoe of pouffes, sofas and café tables and chairs. They’re not safe. Stockwell circles and cajoles them menacingly. At one point he suspends a brick near the heads of audience members, attached to knicker elastic held in Johnson’s teeth. When the brick flies, it’ll zoom straight into Johnson’s teeth too. You’ll have to see what happens. No, there isn’t a fight arranger or choreographer. Mark Dymock’s tenebrous lighting and John Leonard’s sound (notably pumping the Eagles’ noirish ‘Hotel California’) smoulder with the Seventies.
The Warp itself is riffed off rather than referenced. Neil Oram’s script of ten (eventually eleven) plays cover a period from fifteenth century Germany to 1978. Promenade and immersive theatre were stretched to their outer limits and reinvented. The monstrous parade of venues from ICA to derelict theatres at the Edinburgh Festival makes this meta-narrative perhaps even more engaging and richer in gags since here we’ve the quintessence of Campbell without the exhaustion, spliced with Johnson’s superior writing skills, comically bent forever from the cosmic rays of this production – rooted as it was in alternative universes. Johnson’s own gifts after this moved decidedly to the comic themselves, and certainly (as in his 1982 Insignificance) invoke stellar collisions.
From Johnson’s initiation we’re introduced to a gamut of Stockwells firing off the hiring of actors including Bill Nighy and the departed Broadbent (of whom there’s a riotous imitation). In rehearsals, there’s a coy question from one of them, Eithne about sex. ‘Are we doing this for real?’ Not desire, but a permission was tentatively sought, Johnson records, and for once even Ken’s bashful as his eyebrows confer with one another. ‘No. You’re not obliged to accept Russell’s member. You don’t have to make it real, as long as you keep it real.’ Along that hairline fissure one might say, Ken’s aesthetic tightropes itself.
Because Johnson’s experience is so informed by all this, it’s a wrench to leave this bizarrerie and trace Ken’s later years. There’s a touch of Withnail and I as his career flounders whilst Johnson’s flourishes, but clearly the latter determinedly did his best to promote his old mentor and there seems little resentment. At one point he gives him £6,000 to write a TV pilot. Not a line was ever produced. Then there’s.. how does one explain a Royal Court workshop where Ken brings on burlesque performer Mouse who puts a milk-filled funnel up her bum? ‘She executes a neat manoeuvre on all fours and sprays the milk out in a ten foot arc. The would-be playwrights and actors scatter…’ There’s more..
Johnson plays the straight man delivering gags to Stockwell’s gagging to deliver the straight from himself. Whizzing about like a satellite to Johnson, Stockwell apparates in one part of the auditorium after another, sometimes ejecting punters from seats politely, or swapping hats to inhabit another barking role. It’s a virtuoso performance compressing exuberance up to the end of this quizzical genius’s life. The sadly witty denouement is intensely moving, just because Johnson is appalled at the pieties on show.
Legacy then. There’s a 1979 Arena Documentary, What Did You Do in the Warp, Daddy? with footage from the original. There’s a more momentous answer than that little pun could imagine. The Warp had a very real product. Daisy, born of the lead Prunella Gee: Daisy Campbell predicted by a great authority they visited (when she was six) to go ‘farther than her father’. In fact the already legendary Campbell junior might just be doing that. She’s not only directed The Warp (written by Neil Oram at breakneck peed) but written and directed a sequel, Cosmic Trigger, and stars in a hommage monologue of her own at the Brighton Festival. Unlike Ken, Daisy can lock into the system but remain a radical. She features here as giving technophobe Ken cash to buy a computer at least; he returns with a grey though not dead African parrot. It’s impossible not to be marked by such a decision.
Johnson’s two-hander might seem a low-key hommage but his script’s brilliant, more enduring than Oram’s and capable of really bringing avatars back to earth. It’s one of the funniest he’s written too, and with himself and Stockwell a more than touching tribute. It’s a re-affirmation of Campbell’s comic epic theatre, and inspires you to look out for what his daughter might be bringing to us.