Jeremy Stockwell and Terry Johnson. Image courtesy Robert Day.
Ken by Terry Johnson, The Bunker, London
Ten years after his unexpected death, the influence of maverick theatre-maker Ken Campbell seems stronger than ever. His anarchic creativity and alternative approach to performance is continued by his daughter Daisy, whose Cosmic Trigger was a 2017 highlight. Now Terry Johnson, famed for such plays as Hitchcock Blonde and Insignificance, has taken his tribute play, KEN, to The Bunker after a run at the Hampstead Theatre. It is a hilarious and touchingly personal two-hander that leaves the audience in no doubt about the important of Campbell.
Johnson first encountered Ken when he picked up the phone at his shared house in 1978. Ken was calling to speak to someone else, but Johnson ended up with a job (“Jim Broadbent’s fucked off, so you can have his parts”). These turned out to be in The Warp, a legendary 24-hour play about the life of a man called Neil Oram, the most insane and inspiring of Campbell’s many such ventures. Having appeared in The Warp, Johnson then played half of Zaphod Beeblebrox in Campbell’s disastrous stage version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This closed early, along with Johnson’s acting career. Now, 35 years later, he appears once more on stage, mostly from behind a lectern, to deliver his memories of Ken and to show us something of his impact.
Johnson’s wry delivery makes him an ideal straight man for Jeremy Stockwell, who also worked with Campbell. Stockwell plays not only Ken, complete with one of Ken’s pork pie hats, but also everyone else. His impersonation is uncanny, a nasal Thames Estuary accent and piercing gaze conjuring up Ken on the spot. Assisted by Tim Shortall’s set which transforms the Bunker into a carpeted hippy hangout draped in ethnic throws, the pair build a double act which is very funny indeed. This is down both to Johnson’s sharp writing, but also to Ken himself, an impossible visionary, equally prone to unhinged antics and piercing insight. His declaration that there is no finer act that “one of utter folly” guided his approach and led him, for instance, to liven up The Warp several hours in by leading the audience to a nearby tennis court where the cast were required to perform their scene while playing an impromptu tennis match. Stockwell has enormous fun with not only Ken, but the characters who passed through his orbit – from a husky voiced numerologist to Trevor Nunn, irked at being comprehensively pranked by Ken.
As Johnson observes, ‘ken’ is a noun meaning knowledge, experience and understanding. The knowledge of himself that Ken unlocked in Johnson shaped, he feels, his subsequent life and career. One night Ken jabbed him in the sternum in a Liverpool pub, telling him “You have a switch in here, and it’s off.” Everything he achieved was based on learning how to turn that switch on. The power of Campbell’s influence, whether in heroic success or heroic failure, is made very clear in Johnson’s powerful tribute. What makes KEN really work is the feeling that we been granted a genuine glimpse of the real Ken Campbell, a rare insight into why he mattered. Johnson’s play does not just tell us that he was special, he convinces us.