Review: Ken at The Bunker Theatre

Ken Campbell was a writer, actor, director and legendary prankster, who had a profound influence on the careers of some of Britain’s best-loved entertainers – among them Terry Johnson and Jeremy Stockwell, whose two-man show marks the tenth anniversary of their friend’s death.

The Ken experience begins with Tim Shortall’s set; stepping inside The Bunker is like going back in time to the 1970s. There’s plush pink carpet everywhere you look, a smell of incense hanging in the air, and a random assortment of audience seating choices, from cushions to bar stools.

The format of the show, directed by Lisa Spirling, is equally unusual, and sees Johnson (in the programme named as The Writer but in reality speaking as himself) presenting from a lectern for the majority of its 90-minute duration. Meanwhile Jeremy Stockwell roams the theatre as Ken, spending more time among the audience than he does on stage (though that doesn’t mean he isn’t participating in the show – far from it). Both men appear throughout to be enjoying themselves immensely, not least when the script – deliberately or not, it’s impossible to tell – goes out the window.

Photo credit: Robert Day

Ken is difficult to put into any particular box; I can best describe it as a hybrid of part theatre, part stand-up, part eulogy, and it’s this last that leaves the deepest impression. Among other anecdotes, we learn how Ken and Terry met in a chance encounter, witness their collaboration on a notorious 24-hour production at the Edinburgh Fringe, and hear about a later, equally infamous, attempt to stage The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – an attempt that marked the end of Terry Johnson’s acting career (until now, at least).

Johnson is open and honest about his tempestuous relationship with Campbell and his own journey of self-discovery as a result of their friendship. Despite all the ups and downs, there’s an obvious affection there as he looks back with a wry smile on their madcap adventures, and the play closes with a poignant reflection on Campbell’s funeral and the legacy he left behind.

Jeremy Stockwell’s performance, in contrast to Johnson’s quiet dignity, is brash, unembarrassed, and not afraid to improvise. Even for those of us not familiar with the real Ken, there’s such conviction in his portrayal that it’s easy to believe we’re in the presence of the man himself, though he slips just as easily into other impressions, from Irish actor John Joyce to theatre director Trevor Nunn. His performance is exciting to watch because – like Campbell – he’s entirely unpredictable and we never quite know what he might say or do next.

Photo credit: Robert Day

Ken is a moving, warm tribute to an unforgettable character. There’s no doubting the sincerity of the performance or the sentiments expressed, but the show stops short of becoming maudlin; as Johnson points out, Ken – who reminded his friends from beyond the grave that “funeral” is an anagram of “real fun” – would have hated that. Like all the best memorials, this is a joyful and more than a little bonkers celebration of a unique life and personality, and through it Ken lives on.

Ken is at The Bunker until 24th February.

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Review: Macbeeth at The Hen and Chickens

Red Squash Theatre’s Macbeeth is, as the title suggests, Macbeth – just not quite as we know it. In keeping (for the most part) with Shakespeare’s intended plot, the play is still as murdery as ever; the difference is in this version there are a lot more laughs, along with a distinctly North American sounding Macbeth, a very questionable beard, and a man called Derek. Oh, and there are just three actors playing – well, everyone.

Photo credit: Robbie Ewing

As you might expect, it’s all extremely silly (in fact, a voiceover before the show warns us of “interpretations of Shakespeare some audience members may find infantile”) and more than a little chaotic – but before any Shakespeare scholars runs for the hills in horror, a word of reassurance: the three actors all clearly not only know what they’re doing, but do it very well. Though heavily edited to fit the whole story into just an hour, all the essentials of the script are there and delivered flawlessly by Rory Fairbairn (who plays all the witches, Duncan and Macduff among a multitude of roles), Holly McFarlane (Banquo, Lady Macbeth, Malcolm and more) and Alexander Tol (Macbeth, Fleance and others). It might be Shakespeare lite, but it’s very much still Shakespeare; the comedy aspect comes not from changing the story but from taking to extremes what’s already there.

This includes the characters – Holly McFarlane and Alexander Tol as the Macbeths in particular take their roles of bossy wife and cowed husband extremely seriously, and Rory Fairbairn’s kindly but blissfully oblivious King Duncan is also a hit – as well as the story itself, which is, after all, essentially one long killing spree based on the word of three strange women in the woods. But the majority of the humour springs from the production itself, which plays throughout on the multi-roling of actors, and the rudimentary set and props they have to work with (the appearance of dead Banquo at Macbeth’s feast is particularly creative). There are also a few jokes at the expense of the actors, which, Macbeth’s accent aside, aren’t really borne out in their very able performances – but this is a small quibble and certainly doesn’t mar the play’s unstoppable entertainment value.

Photo credit: Robbie Ewing

If you’ve ever felt Shakespeare was a bit heavy, Macbeeth may well change your mind. While it undoubtedly includes some elements the play’s writer might have regarded with some suspicion (hello, magic eight ball) its heart is in the right place and the production still delivers on its promise of “95% actual Shakespeare”. Most importantly, it’s also great fun, bringing us organised chaos that doesn’t outstay its welcome and allowing its cast to showcase their talents for both comedy and tragedy. Highly recommended for an enjoyably silly night out.


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Review: Netherbard at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

Why go and see one Shakespeare play when you can see several all at once? In Netherbard, the debut show from Budding Rose Productions, Kate (Rosemary Berkon), Amy (Tayla Kenyon) and Lena (Katrina Allen) have been cast as the three witches in Macbeth. In between rehearsals they take time out to moan about Abby (Lucinda Turner), who’s snatched the role of Lady Macbeth from under Kate’s nose – along with Lena’s boyfriend and Amy’s dream role in Eastenders.

Their light-hearted banter takes an unexpectedly dark turn when Abby herself arrives, and the trio realise they’re no longer rehearsing Macbeth, but King Lear. By the time they realise what’s happened and why, there’s no going back, and so begins a mad chase through a selection of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, uncovering a tale of envy and ambition the Bard himself would be proud of. The only difference is that here the women are taking their destiny into their own hands, instead of slinking off to die quietly backstage while the men do the fighting.

Even the most diehard fan would have to admit women don’t always get a great deal in Shakespeare’s world, so it’s refreshing to see the girls stepping into the spotlight and taking on some meatier roles. Despite some sombre themes and nefarious deeds, Netherbard is very much a comedy, and under Rosie Snell’s direction the energy never wavers. The cast are clearly enjoying themselves and keep pace well with the rapid-fire dialogue – though it’s not always so easy for the audience to keep up, particularly later in the play when things start to get a bit chaotic and the actors are talking over each other. At just a couple of minutes under an hour, it’s all over very quickly, but manages to pack a lot of action into that brief time, and I would have happily stayed for more.

Janice Hallett’s lively comedy is great fun for Shakespeare fans, and a perfect opportunity for those who want to show off by identifying all the famous speeches that come up in the script (although it is possible to cheat a bit thanks to Greg Spong’s set, which is full of clues – some obvious, some less so). But the play’s equally enjoyable for lovers of Eastenders or reality TV where, let’s be honest, you’re just as likely to find people stabbing each other in the back as in any Shakespearean tragedy. 

Netherbard is an impressive debut from an exciting new female-led company. It’s a shame the initial run was just two days, but hopefully it’s not the last we’ve seen of this offbeat tribute to Shakespeare and the cut-throat world of showbiz.


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Review: Flycatcher at The Hope Theatre

Gregg Masuak’s Flycatcher is unsettling from the start, kicking off with an eery, monotonous chorus of “nobody likes me, everybody hates me…” led by Emily Arden’s unblinking Madelaine, while the rest of the cast emerge from the corners, where they’ve been frozen like waxworks since we entered.

From there, things get increasingly disturbing and bewildering as awkward waitress Madelaine becomes obsessed with Bing, an idealistic young life insurance salesman. Unfortunately, he in turn is obsessed – though in a (slightly) less creepy way – with Olive, a gallery owner who reminds him of his idol Grace Kelly and is herself trapped in an unfulfilling relationship with a married man. When Madelaine befriends Olive, you just know it isn’t going to end well… Meanwhile a seemingly unrelated subplot involving Madelaine’s grandmother Mae, growing old disgracefully in a desperate bid for attention, circles back in the play’s shocking final moments to complete the intricate web connecting all the characters to each other.

It’s a bizarre play, part thriller, part comedy and made up of a lot of very short scenes – some literally a few seconds – that keep the cast of eight moving constantly on and off stage. Though the action predominantly revolves around the four main characters, the other actors (Nathan Plant, Susanna Wolff, Bruce Kitchener and Melissa Dalton) work just as hard, in a variety of eccentric and distinct supporting roles that intersect with the central characters at different points. This structure could have resulted in a very stop-start production, but under the direction of writer Gregg Masuak everything flows smoothly, and the actors – who frequently retire to the corners of the space to prepare for their next scene – never miss a beat. There’s still a lot to take in from one minute to the next, but it’s difficult to fault the way the snapshot scenes are presented.

Emily Arden is genuinely quite scary as Madelaine as she weaves her web of deceit around Bing and Olive, glowering all the while at a world that’s never accepted her (though her rare attempts at a smile are even more frightening), and visibly growing in stature and confidence as she puts her plan into action. She makes an unlikely pairing with Alex Shenton’s Bing, a charming salesman who wins over his customers by selling them a dream of a better world; one of the biggest tragedies of the play is seeing him lose the puppy dog eagerness with which he pursues Olive, played by Amy Newton. Their relationship progresses very naturally through the awkward flirting stage into something resembling stability, but is equally convincing as both it and they begin to fall apart. Completing the core cast as Mae, Fiz Marcus offers some light relief, although her vulnerability and desperate need for someone – anyone – to listen to her is heartbreaking; she spends most of the play talking into a void as all the other characters avoid or scorn her.

There are elements of the story that are strange and confusing, and I’d be surprised if anybody left feeling they understood everything they’d just seen. However, the performances, design (I really loved the simple effectiveness of Anna Kezia Williams’ spiderweb set) and direction combine to create an atmosphere of foreboding and drama that keeps us engaged even when we don’t really know what’s happening. A distinctly odd evening, and the style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this is undeniably an excellent production.


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Review: The Very Perry Show at the Hen and Chickens

People are odd. Which is a good thing; if we were all completely normal, life would be very dull. You only have to tune into a neighbour’s conversation on the train, or look at the other customers in a cafe to appreciate how wonderfully weird human beings are.

Kate Perry knows this more than most. She likes to collect people – and then share them in all their delightful eccentricity. So it is that we come to meet the likes of Carmel, a pensioner with a Ken Barlow obsession; Jimmy, a pigeon fancier from Bolton; and Bridget, a little girl making friends – whether they like it or not – with her fellow passengers on a flight to the States. These are just three of the characters brought to life in the comedy monologues of The Very Perry Show, a fun-filled one-woman performance that stops off in London this week on its way to New York.

Directed by Jeremy Stockwell, the show takes a no frills approach; each character has one or two accessories to differentiate them visually from the rest, but they’re really just a bonus thanks to Kate Perry’s talent for embodying completely each distinct personality. The affection she feels for each of her creations is obvious – even Suzie, a bored twelve-year-old from Surrey who’s just been expelled (again), and to pass the time plies her mother with tranquillisers, then calmly films the ensuing carnage for a web series she likes to call Mummy on the Brink.

That slightly dark episode aside, all the characters are interesting and lovable in their own ways (though in Bridget’s case, there’s a big difference between ten minutes in a theatre and several hours on a plane). And of course there are a lot of laughs, even in the stories we might not expect to be that amusing – like Marie, who’s reminiscing about the day she heard her father had died; not a cheerful topic, yet Marie ultimately ends up getting one of the biggest laughs of the night.

The final character in the collection is Mary Peachy-Bender, an Amish wife and mother of “six childrens” (and she does not want any more). The extreme circumstances in which Mary lives offer plenty of opportunities for comedy, but there’s also a sadness to this character as she imagines a different life, and that makes her somehow the most believable of them all.

Kate Perry is a great performer – quite apart from her talent for creating characters we can both relate to and laugh at, as a host she’s warm and inviting, addressing the audience directly but not in a way that will make anyone uncomfortable. The show is an hour of good, clean fun that moves along at a gentle pace without ever losing our interest, and proves that there really are interesting characters everywhere if you take a look around.


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