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: Eyes Closed, Ears Covered at The Bunker

In Alex Gwyther’s thriller Eyes Closed, Ears Covered, two teenage boys bunk off school and go on an adventure to Brighton. It’s obvious from the start that the two friends have a complex and potentially unhealthy relationship – and when something terrible happens on the beach, it falls to two frustrated police officers to try and make sense of the day’s events.

Much like the officers, the audience must piece together the clues to work out the real story behind Aaron and Seb’s day trip – and when the final piece of the jigsaw slots into place moments before the play ends, the truth turns out to be as shocking as it is satisfying. I love a well-written thriller that really keeps you guessing, and this play definitely falls into that category.

Photo credit: Anton Belmonté of 176 Flamingo Lane

Many of the characters in Derek Anderson’s production feature only as Big Brother-esque voiceovers, which means all our attention is focused on the story’s three leads. Danny-Boy Hatchard takes control in the first act as Aaron, who’s the mastermind behind the adventure. Outgoing and often very funny, he can also be unpredictable and aggressive when things don’t go his way… and he wields a disturbing amount of power over the naive and socially awkward Seb.

Act 2 abandons the police station and is carried by the excellent Joe Idris-Roberts, who takes us back in time to explore the tender relationship between ten-year-old Seb and his mother Lily, played by Phoebe Thomas. As well as answering a lot of the questions posed by Act 1, this part of the play also leads us into increasingly dark territory (there’s very little laughter to be heard after the interval), touching on themes of domestic violence and mental health as it paves the way for the story’s dramatic conclusion.

A simple set proves no obstacle to the storytelling, with some impeccably timed movement (directed by Jonnie Riordan) helping to build a picture of the characters’ surroundings, and Norvydas Genys’ lighting design keeping the action moving between locations, as well as back and forth in time. There’s also a great moment at the beginning of Act 2, when Lily replaces a photo of herself, appearing on stage as if by magic.

Photo credit: Anton Belmonté of 176 Flamingo Lane

There’s just one niggle for me about the play, namely the decision to set it in the 1980s. This isn’t particularly borne out by the story (I remember just one popular culture reference to Tom Selleck as a relevant movie star), and putting 30 years between the events of the play and its audience suggests they have no relevance today – when in fact the opposite is true.

That said, this is without doubt a compelling and well executed piece of theatre, which grabs our attention from the start and never loses its intensity. With three brilliant performances and a dramatic twist ending, this dark thriller is well worth a visit.

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Review: The Enchanted at The Bunker

If you had to think of a word to describe death row, what would it be? Dark, perhaps. Hopeless. Desperate. Whatever word first comes to mind, probably one of the last would be enchanted. Yet this is how Pharmacy Theatre’s haunting play begins, as a death row inmate describes his surroundings in language so poetic and beautiful it seems impossible he could be talking about a prison where men and women who are despised and forgotten by society go to die.

Photo credit: Dina T

This is just one example from the play of how hope and redemption can be found in even the darkest of places… or people. The Enchanted – both the play and Rene Denfeld’s novel on which it’s based – tackles head on the assumptions we in the free world make daily about death row: everyone there is evil; they feel no love or remorse; they deserve to be where they are, and can have nothing to offer the world but more pain. It does this without making excuses or painting an unrealistically rosy picture: the two prisoners in the play are guilty men who’ve done terrible things, the full details of which – thankfully – we never learn. What’s more important is not what they’ve done, but why; at the play’s heart is a desperate need to understand, and as the actors scrawl words and images on the walls and floor in chalk, the set begins to resemble a big mind map trying to make sense of a huge and complex problem.

Condensing the multiple complex strands of the novel into 90 minutes, Joanna and Connie Treves’ skilful adaptation is narrated by Arden, a prisoner whose crimes are so terrible that nobody – not even other killers – ever speaks of them. In a spellbinding performance, Corey Montague-Sholay plays this character with an intense vulnerability that’s at odds with his role as murderer; every movement, gesture and facial expression, his childlike love of books and his poetic use of language to escape the confines of his world cry out to us that this is not an evil man, but rather one who’s been broken by life.

Perhaps more in keeping with our imagined idea of a death row inmate is York (Hunter Bishop), the man in the cell next door. Unpredictable, unstable and unkempt, all restless energy and crazy eyes, he’s done the unthinkable: given up on his appeals and decided he wants to die. The only person now standing between him and execution is The Lady (Jade Ogugua), an investigator who’s become a symbol of hope for everyone on the row. As she delves into York’s past, she uncovers a horrific tale of abuse and neglect – hauntingly portrayed by puppets, as if in a therapist’s office – that explains how he ended up a killer. But can she convince him to live – and is that even her ultimate goal, or does she have some other motivation for her tireless efforts to get inside the mind of a murderer?

Photo credit: Dina T

What comes across so well in the performance, movement (directed by Emily Orme) and language of all the actors is a deep sadness and sense of collective responsibility – not just from those who’ve committed crimes, but also from those around them, who failed to hear or react to their cries for help as they set off down the dark path that ends on death row. While in no way diminishing the responsibility of the individual for their own actions, the play makes it clear that society must take some of the blame; otherwise how can we ever hope to stop such crimes from happening?

Just as in life, there are no easy answers or neat endings in this dark and gripping tale – to suggest there are would be overly simplistic. The Enchanted isn’t a political drama but an urgent human one, shining a light on a world most of us can’t even imagine, and forcing us to confront and accept the flawed and forgotten humanity of those within it, before they run out of time.

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Interview: Connie Treves, The Enchanted

Joanna and Connie Treves discovered Rene Denfeld’s award-winning novel The Enchanted in 2014, after hearing the author – a death penalty investigator – speak on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. Exploring the complexities of the U.S. justice system and the treatment of prisoners on death row through performance, puppetry, choreography and sound, Pharmacy Theatre’s adaptation of The Enchanted opens at London’s Bunker Theatre this week following a successful run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

The Enchanted is a story about death row in America, but it’s also a story about how we find hope in the most terrible circumstances,” explains Connie, who in addition to co-adapting also directs the play. “It seeks to uncover the reasons why people end up committing horrific crimes, and affirms that even men who have been locked up by society for what they have done are able to reach for beauty and truth.”

Rene Denfeld’s first novel is set in a maximum security prison in Oregon, and invites us to consider how its characters have found themselves caught up in the never-ending cycle of violence that is the death penalty. “Denfeld’s novel is such a holistic portrayal of those who work in and around death row,” says Connie. “The novel is not judgmental and Denfeld has spoken widely about how she did not want the novel to be overtly political. For me, it is so political though in its honesty. It addresses the complexity of the penal system and how we must view it within the wider structures of our society – we must always try to understand.”

Not surprisingly, adapting Denfeld’s 300-page novel has been a long and complex project. “For me, the novel is also very theatrical,” says Connie. “At the heart of the story lies the universal human need to be witnessed – to be seen – which is very interesting onstage. The whole theatrical experience suddenly becomes even more charged. Firstly, we had to create a loose script which could be worked on for the stage. The novel consists of many different overlapping stories and it was clear from the off we would not be able to keep all of the different plot lines. There was then a long process of narrowing the content and experimenting with the actors on what translated on stage. At the heart of our work was trying to keep the same ethos of the novel. That was the hardest part.”

As director, Connie has nothing but praise for her creative team, which includes movement director Emily Orme, composer David McFarlane and a cast of six actors: Corey Montague-Sholay, Jade Ogugua, Hunter Bishop, Georgina Morton, Liam Harkins and Jack Staddon. “They’re all wonderful! The process of devising is always demanding and especially working on a piece about death row. Everyone has also fully thrown themselves into the research – every day I come into rehearsal and someone is talking about a new documentary they have seen or article they’ve read!”

Although the UK no longer uses capital punishment, Connie believes the play is still essential viewing for British audiences: “We may not have the death penalty, but the UK justice system has many of the same failings as that of the USA. Both systems need to be seen as part of a whole system of social care, and it’s so important to see the correlations between failures in other parts of the social care system and an increase in crime.”

Photo credit: Jesse Jeune

The play was made with the support of the novel’s author Rene Denfeld and Professor of Child Development Elsbeth Webb. In addition, Pharmacy Theatre also enjoy the backing of prominent human rights lawyer and founder of the charity Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith. “Clive’s just fantastic,” says Connie. “He is such a brilliant man who does such hard and important work. To have his support and be able to learn from his experience has helped us all so much. We are very lucky.”

The Enchanted goes beyond simply portraying the realities of death row, and Connie hopes it will make audiences think about much deeper questions. “I hope they’ll take away that it’s so important in so many different areas of life to strive to understand why things are happening,” she explains. “By looking back to the root of a problem we are able to uncover a huge amount of hope – if there is a cause there is also the possibility to intervene in these cycles of pain. Above this though, The Enchanted is about a shared humanity. If audiences are able to come away from the production thinking about what are the things which make us human then I’ll feel we have done justice to the book!”

Book now for The Enchanted at The Bunker until 17th June.

Review: This Is Not Culturally Significant at The Bunker

Rightly or wrongly, there’s one thing most people will know going into Adam Scott-Rowley’s one-man show, This Is Not Culturally Significant – so let’s get it out the way first. Yes, he’s naked. No, it’s not weird. Uncomfortably explicit on occasion, yes; the first couple of minutes are unforgiving and throw us entirely in the deep end. It definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But surprisingly quickly the nudity not only stops being an issue; it starts to feel like a necessary part of the performance.

Photo credit: Bessell McNamee

To make sense of that, let’s go back a bit. This Is Not Culturally Significant, we learn in the programme, began life as a series of caricatures that grew and developed, and ultimately began to link together. There’s an American porn star and her lonely father, an abusive husband and his timid wife, a homeless Scottish woman, a bitter theatre producer who’s being ousted in favour of Andrew Lloyd Webber… and several others, all of whom challenge us and each other simply by being themselves in a world that doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

And every one of those characters is played by Adam Scott-Rowley in an astonishing virtuoso performance that sees him transforming from one persona to the next, sometimes abruptly, sometimes slowly. These changes become more frequent as the show goes on and his characters increasingly jostle for centre stage. Posture, personality, voice and accent are always absolutely distinct; it’s clear he knows each of the characters intimately, and his embodiment of them is so skilful that by the end of the 50 minutes we feel we’re starting to know them too.

And so back to the nudity, which was initially introduced as a way to add vulnerability to the characters, but ends up serving a far more practical purpose: with no need for costume changes, the shifts are not only easier and quicker but a lot more effective; it would have been difficult to believe in a bag lady dressed in the same clothes as a posh racist or a spiritualist lecturer, and pausing to change would interrupt the flow. Seeing someone so entirely exposed – in every sense – also gives the show an extra intensity, and ironically it ends up being the one naked guy in the room who’s most at ease.

Photo credit: Bessell McNamee

It’s not only the nakedness that keeps us on edge; this is a show you experience rather than enjoy, and the abruptness of the character changes, flashing lights, loud noises, and one exquisitely awkward moment where it’s not clear if audience participation is required (I still don’t know, if I’m honest), all contribute to ensure we never get too comfortable. Yet there are moments of dark humour too, with much of the laughter fuelled as much by surprise or recognition as by amusement.

I can honestly say This Is Not Culturally Significant is unlike any show I’ve seen before – but I can just as honestly say that’s not only because it’s performed nude. If everyone goes in knowing that one thing, let’s hope they come out talking about Adam Scott-Rowley’s extraordinary performance, and acknowledging that the nudity enhances something that’s already pretty special – with or without clothes.

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