Tuesday, 30 January 2018

REVIEW: Ken at the Bunker

There is a very special feel as you enter the Bunker, the small underground venue that opened in 2016 in a small former car park and are greeted with an eclectic mix of furniture, a deep red pile carpet, walls draped with oriental rugs and house lights provided by a varied mix of household lampshades. It feels one of the most relaxing spaces you can imagine to watch a performance with plenty of legroom to stretch out in.

It turns out to be a perfect setting for this highly personal account of the author's long term friendship with the theatrical maverick Ken Campbell, a director I was not aware of before but now wish I had seen his work. The writer of the piece, for it does not have the feel of a play, Terry Johnson stands centre stage behind a lectern and reads his account of their work together. He perfectly captures the frustration, bemusement but ultimately deep affection he developed for his friend in their work together and over the course of ninety minutes draws us in to share his sadness at his passing. 

This emotional connection is fostered by the extraordinary performance of Jeremy Stockwell as Ken (and some of the fellow actors who worked with them). He prowls around the auditorium, eyebrows bristling, engaging the audience with glances and stares and occasional playful assault and creates a powerful image of this absurdist experimental director/comedian. They show the mutual respect they both had as actors for Ken Campbell and together celebrate his life.

The focus of the play is two epic Campbell productions in the period 1979 to 1981. The first half describes the 22 hour long promenade production of The Warp, based on the real life experiences and adventures of author Neil Oram at the dilapidated Regent Theatre and nearby tennis court in Edinburgh during the Festival of 1979. The 14 inch think script was performed from 9.30 pm on a tiny budget and recreated his drug and sex filled experiences. For those who stayed the course it must have been a mind blowing experience.

The second half starts with the story of the ambitious staging of The Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy at the 3000 seat Rainbow Theatre in London in July 1980. In that production Terry Johnson played the second head of Zaphod Beeblebrox and the show earned "the worst notices in annuls of British theatre"! Following this Johnson says he never acted again, presumably until now!

Campbell's wicked sense of humour is illustrated with the tale of his elaborate
joke at the expense of Trevor Nunn in 1981 when he carefully concocted a press release, posters and personal letters in which Nunn appeared to announce that as a consequence of the huge success of its adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby the RSC would be changing its name to the Royal Dickens Company. 

The whole effect is enhanced by carefully coordinated lighting and sound effects design by Mark Dymock and John Leonard. The direction by Lisa Spirling uses the space well and gives the whole show the feel of an animated eulogy to a unique theatre innovator, a celebration of his life and a joyous shared experience.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★
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