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Theatre Review Beyond our Ken

A brilliant tribute to a comic genius goes way beyond mere biography, says LYNNE WALSH

Ken
The Bunker, London

“IF THERE’S a goat, order pudding,” was the advice of the adorably anarchic Ken Campbell on one occasion.

Baffling? Not at all. In the context of an anecdote about the late comic genius’s life, it makes perfect sense.

This two-hander, written by and featuring Terry Johnson as himself, sees Jeremy Stockwell channelling Campbell rather than playing him.

The physical resemblance is fortunate, perhaps, but the voice — that Essex estuary, manic articulation — is uncanny.

Those who encountered Campbell in decades past will recall the swoops and surges of his growling enthusiasm. Taking direction from him must have been like taking notes from your Uncle Mephistopheles.

The set in this subterranean theatre seems to have been thrown together by squatters, an indication that designer Tim Shorthall knows his craft. Indian throws on walls and seating provide a kaleidoscope backdrop, freeing Campbell to sit next to us, digging us in the ribs with a lewd joke or prance down the aisles, slapping us on the back.

At one point, it seems he might make all of us a nice cuppa.

There is no one story of Ken Campbell’s life. He lived it according to the lure of lunacy — his own and others’. Johnson, a colleague, friend and occasional victim of Campbell’s rage, admits to a “wilful perversion of memory” in his bio-schtick of his life and times.

The staging of the 22-hour play cycle The Warp provides the drama for the first half. It’s essentially the autobiography of writer, poet and artist Neil Oram, who would never had written it unless inspired and urged on by Campbell.

And that’s the heart of this piece — Campbell’s “mentoring.” Not an avuncular guidance, more a loving bullying. Actors Bob Hoskins and Jim Broadbent acknowledged their debt to him and so has performer Chris Lynham, renowned for sticking a firework up his bum and lighting it while Ethel Merman belts out “There’s no business like show business.”

Johnson’s writing is lyrical and perfect for the poignant, complex memories he conjures up. If it occasionally trips into purple prose, that’s no less appropriate for the multicoloured world this piece inhabits.

His recollection of Campbell’s funeral in Epping Forest is both daft and devastating. With Campbell gone, laughter gives way to silence — the audience misses him.

But, hell’s bells, it was joyous to spend 90 minutes with the grand old geezer of theatre.

Runs until February 24, box office: bunkertheatre.com

 

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