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.

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Review: Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre

Imagine for a moment what would happen if Albert Einstein met Marilyn Monroe. And then imagine their spirited discussion about the theory of relativity being interrupted by first Joe DiMaggio, who hasn’t seen his wife for two weeks and wants her to come home, and then Senator Joseph McCarthy, who’s trying to drag Einstein to an un-American Activities Committee hearing.

Having trouble? Well then get yourself along to the Arcola, where Terry Johnson’s Insignificance imagines it for you. Directed by David Mercatali, the result is an enjoyably (and perhaps predictably) bizarre encounter that begins as a comedy but ends up in significantly darker territory. Written in 1982, it’s a play that seems to be about a lot of things, much of which a 21st century audience can still relate to – among them the downsides of fame, the threat of nuclear war and the stereotyping of women.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Simon Rouse’s Professor and Alice Bailey Johnson’s Actress (none of the characters are referred to by their names, although the script, costumes and performances leave us in no doubt who we’re looking at) find a surprising connection when she bursts into his Manhattan hotel room eager to meet him and prove she understands the theory of relativity. As someone whose scientific knowledge is limited to say the least, I don’t mind admitting I got totally lost during her increasingly enthusiastic recital – not helped by the fact it’s delivered at the speed of light – but that doesn’t prevent it being the defining moment of the play. You can’t help but cheer a little bit to see Marilyn shrug off her dumb blonde persona and take on one of the brainiest men on the planet… and then again when she takes down the infinitely easier target that is her abrasive, gum-popping husband with a series of withering retorts.

At the root of this triumphant moment, though, is a deep sadness that only grows as the play goes on. The Actress desperately wants to be taken seriously, but is constantly thwarted by the image she’s created for herself. Similarly, the mild-mannered Professor just wants to sit and quietly work out the shape of space, but is pursued by the expectations of others, and the use to which his name and work could be put, should he allow them to be. Each has grown used to the world knowing them only by their public persona, which is why this odd pair make a strange kind of sense – certainly more so than the Actress and the Ball Player, who don’t seem to get each other at all. Joe DiMaggio, played with swagger and just a hint of appealing vulnerability by Oliver Hembrough, is fine with people seeing him exactly as he is, just as long as they still see him… which is probably why the suggestion that he’s merely a creation dreamed up by Tom Mannion’s malicious Senator riles him so badly.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Though rooted in troubling subject matter, Johnson’s script is full of witty one-liners, from inside jokes about Schrödinger’s cat and Arthur Miller to more universal gags, most at the expense of the less intellectually blessed characters. In between the four of them talk at length about various topics, from the scientific to the political to the domestic, in a production that tails off to a vaguely unsatisfactory conclusion – so much so that we end up wondering if the bizarre events of the night happened at all.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Insignificance, not least the strong performances from four actors seemingly unfazed by the pressure of playing real – and in at least two cases, iconic – historical figures. The Professor and the Actress might not succeed in teaching us much science, but their imagined encounter does pose some interesting questions about the self-defeating nature of celebrity. It’s a bit of a slow burner on the night, but this is the kind of play that stays in your mind, throwing up more ideas and discussions the longer you think about it. Well worth a visit, if only for the thrill of witnessing such an unlikely meeting of minds.

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Review: Dead Funny at Vaudeville Theatre

On a night when, as it turned out, we needed a good laugh far more than we realised, there could have been few more appropriate plays for my first outing with Theatre Bloggers than Dead Funny; the clue is, after all, right there in the title. Interestingly, though – and not unlike the brewing news story we were trying to avoid – Terry Johnson’s play takes a sudden dramatic turn at the eleventh hour from absurd comedy to something much more serious.

It’s 1992, and Eleanor (Katherine Parkinson) is attempting to revive her failing marriage to Richard (Rufus Jones) with some exquisitely awkward sex therapy. Unfortunately, they’re interrupted at the crucial moment by their neighbour Brian (Steve Pemberton) with the news that comedian Benny Hill’s just died – which gives Richard, leader of the Dead Funny Society, just the distraction he’s looking for. But as he arranges a farewell gathering for Benny, little does he realise the surprises the evening has in store…

Photo credit: Alastair Muir
Photo credit: Alastair Muir

I was only 10 in 1992, so most of the references to deceased comedians went slightly over my head. But those moments feel dated for a very deliberate reason; the less we can relate to or remember them, the funnier the rest of the play becomes in comparison. And so we find ourselves firmly on Eleanor’s side in her scathing mockery of Richard and his friends, as they reproduce their favourite sketches for (presumably) the millionth time, while refusing to acknowledge the mess that is their own existence. Real life, as it turns out, is much funnier than any comedy sketch – but it can also be a lot more painful.

Katherine Parkinson is spot-on as the quite literally sidelined Eleanor; as the group outsider she’s rarely centre stage, yet still manages to steal the limelight with some perfectly timed and beautifully withering put-downs of the rest of the group – all the more ironic for the fact she’s the one who’s supposed to have no sense of humour. But as her world crumbles, she also shows us the pain of a woman who realises she’s devoted years to a man who can’t – or won’t – give her the one thing she wants. Steve Pemberton is wonderful too as the flamboyant Brian, the one member of the Society who seems genuinely likeable, and who’s also hilarious in his own right (though not always intentionally).

Photo credit: Grace Wordsworth
Photo credit: Grace Wordsworth

Rufus Jones, in contrast, is splendidly dull and pompous as Eleanor’s husband Richard, so much so you start to wonder why she’s wasted ten years on him. And a strong cast is completed by Emily Berrington – just the right amount of whiny as Society member and smug new mother Lisa – and Ralf Little as her indifferent husband Nick.

Somewhere around the middle of a fairly predictable food fight, everything suddenly gets a bit serious, and the final scenes are unexpectedly sombre – though of course there’s still room for a couple more gags before the curtain falls. And so this outrageous comedy comes to a rather messy and bittersweet end, reminding us that life, however ridiculous it might be, can’t be packaged up neatly into a half-hour sitcom. At some point – unfortunately – it’s time to stop laughing and face reality.

Thanks to Theatre Bloggers and Stagedoor for organising the trip.

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