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Ken review at the Bunker, London – ‘a laugh-a-minute tribute’

Jeremy Stockwell and Terry Johnson in Ken at the Bunker, London. Photo: Robert Day Jeremy Stockwell and Terry Johnson in Ken at the Bunker, London. Photo: Robert Day

Inspired, erratic and bewildering in equal measure, Ken Campbell was a mischievous master of experimental theatre who became notorious for his marathon productions. When Terry Johnson answered the phone to him in 1978, he embarked on an unexpected journey that kickstarted his career – and the relationship at the heart of this portrait of the theatremaker.

With the whole space – set, seating area, lectern stand – clad in peachy shagpile, Johnson tells of his encounters with Campbell. Designer Tim Shortall’s set is dominated by a swirling, psychedelic backdrop; lanterns and incense burners hang down while the audience lolls about on mismatched divans, cushions and throws.

There’s no fourth wall to break, as, speaking into a banana for a phone, Jeremy Stockwell’s Ken flits from spot to spot, challenging the writer with increasingly preposterous directions and subverting the supposedly formal lecture-style set-up.

Johnson describes meeting Campbell’s coterie of “seekers”, many of whom have since become well-known performers, and the unconventional process of staging a 22-hour show in a squatted church in Edinburgh. Between the many laughs are candid details about cast misbehaviour and Campbell’s fiery temper. With a prod to the sternum, Johnson is upbraided for his squareness: “You’ve got a switch there and it’s off.”

Stockwell’s uncanny portrayal of Campbell – a baggy-clothed bundle of inquisitiveness, nasal Essex voice and unpredictable gesticulations – gets to the heart of the man, yet never descends to caricature.

There’s a genuine, knicker-elastic-pinging glee in this kaleidoscopic two-hander, but deeper felt is Johnson’s clear debt of gratitude to “the most influential man I ever met”.

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Verdict
Terry Johnson’s laugh-a-minute tribute to his theatrical mentor, offering insight into their relationship and experimental theatremaking
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