It has been ten years since Ken Campbell, ‘theatrical maverick’, passed away. Terry Johnson’s Ken suitably tributes the genius in this narrated re-enactment of his most memorable stories. The play follows the relationship of Johnson himself and Campbell, from their bizarre meeting, into their work together and right through to Campbell’s death. The memories range from the bizarre to the heart-warming and the results is a charming portrayal of Johnson’s most inspirational figure.
As you walk in the door, you are hit with a palpable sense of the 1970s. The swirling, colourful wallpaper along with the lively music, captures the time period magnificently. Tim Shorthall’s design is in keeping with the style of the show, alongside creating an environment wherein Jeremy Stockwell can wander freely in between audience members, as the energetic and unpredictable Ken. Johnson’s writing is expectedly strong. His description of each story does brilliantly at painting a detailed picture of his experiences at the time. Every tale is spoken about with passion and a genuine, emotional investment in the script’s content. He talks so fondly of Campbell himself that it certainly moves the audience, and this relationship was clearly very important to him, both personally and professionally.
Stockwell’s performance is brilliant. His main success is capturing the mannerisms, movements and mischief of Campbell. His facial expressions are cheeky, cheerful and extremely funny. He moves around the auditorium almost menacingly, and no audience member is safe from a bit of conversation, the odd jibe or even some involvement in a scene. He is also very talented at multi-roling, embodying each character believably and creatively with a tremendous voice quality attached to each role. Johnson also shows good ability, switching from narration to characterisation with little bother. Both actors break character and the fourth wall proficiently, and show a strong chemistry in gaging when to do so.
There are some problems with this piece in terms of pace. It is a fantastic tribute to Campbell, and the stories are genuinely funny. However, the style of storytelling feels a little dated. There are moments of staleness, where the atmosphere feels flat. At times it verges on being a little dull. When Ken comes into the auditorium, the audience interaction moments feel a little clumsy and half-baked. There are times of unpredictability, which the actor’s react to well, but mostly it feels like the fourth wall is broken unimaginatively. The times when the show is most engaging, is when you see a truly detailed insight into how Ken worked in the theatre, and hear the wonderful pearls of wisdom he possessed.
Overall, the content itself is fascinating. There are a few hugely comedic moments, and the audience definitely respond emotionally to a well-written script. Clearly Ken Campbell was a fascinating man with hugely dynamic insights into the world of theatre. As a show, it does sag a little and you can feel disengaged from time to time. Writing for a younger theatre audience, it must be said that it isn’t the most captivating production, but it is a moving tribute to a charismatic, talented and inspirational man.
Ken is playing at The Bunker Theatre until 24 February 2018
Photo: Robert Day