Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Seeker after truth... Ken, The Bunker Theatre

The bunker was laid out like a post-trippy nightclub, with Persian carpets, tables and chairs all mildly shrouded by the smell of joss sticks as Donna Summer and Spaced played us in: this was the mid-seventies between counter-culture and punk. At around that time as a 14-year old I was buying LPs in Liverpool’s Probe Records and used to be fascinated by ads for The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool and a mysterious play called Illuminatus! I still have the flyers in a box complete with programmes for the Playhouse and Everyman, my Eric’s membership cards, old NMEs, Zigzags (a punk fanzine) and a collection of the mind-expanding Brainstorm Comix!

Forty years on and finally I get to find out more about the man behind this arcane theatre, Ken Campbell, a radical presence who influenced not just a generation of off-beat actors such as Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent and Sylvester McCoy but also the Liverpool scene in general including Bill Drummond – member of the seminal Big in Japan (a scouse super-group – look ‘em up, la!), manager of the Teardrops and Bunnymen and from there to the KLF. Campbell was an instinctive iconoclast with an energy that brought out the best from some and drove many others away.

For playwright Terry Johnson he was “…my friend, champion and occasional nemesis…” and the man who placed his finger directly on his sternum and told him that he needed to turn his “switch” on! It was a moment of intense personal connection and one that Johnson still cherishes; it helped drive him on to success as a director and innovative writer himself – I’d seen a revival of his Insignificance only a few months back and its star, his daughter, was in attendance tonight.

Terry Johnson
Johnson wrote and acts in this play and it is as disarmingly personal portrait of Ken that shows the good and bad of their relationship. Lisa Spirling directs with real style and has Ken (played by another former collaborator, Jeremy Stockwell) positioned in the audience ready to spring up when we least expected and from there on to break the fourth wall into so many pieces.

It’s a bold production that makes the most of the intimate energy this direction generates. Johnson’s words flow so beautifully well on occasion but they’re also from the heart and it is hard to imagine that they are all of them so easily said. But, his switch is “on” and he is infused with the spirit of his friend, emboldened into telling us all of Campbell’s call to just do it!

The play starts when Terry met Ken and ended up being cast in one of his plays, this time the sprawling 24-hour The Warp based on the life of Neil Oram. After Campbell had decided Oram’s original play was rubbish, he told him he wanted to “write him” and, together (maybe) they produced a script 14 inches deep that was to be performed in just six days in Edinburgh at the run-down Regal Theatre which the crew also needed to renovate. The result still holds the record for the longest play ever performed and being such a marathon, once required moving cast and audience to a tennis court to keep everyone awake.

Campbell was famous for the greeting “good evening seekers!” and was always on a journey to find new experience and to challenge those daydreaming through life. He was surrounded by a gang of talented eccentrics, John Joyce, a woman called Mia who Johnson considered the most beautiful he has ever seen (even as he doubts her existence as a single entity…), Daisy (his daughter with actress Prunella Gee, who is now also a playwright), not to mention Hoskins, Conti, Lord James Broadbent and Chris Langham.

Terry Johnson and Jeremy Stockwell
Ken was full on and sometimes would look straight in you challenging any wayward complacency or phony thoughts. He was also a one for grand-scale pranks and once re-titled the RSC the Royal Dickens Company on the grounds that they did more 19th than 16th Century work. He contacted the actors and issued press releases succeeding in convincing enough people that Trevor Nunn had to come out and deny that it was happening.

It’s an intensely personal exercise for Johnson and a brave one as well he’s acting himself through some of the most important moments of his life and the barrier between performance Terry and actual Terry must be wafer thin. But you know that Ken, if he is anywhere else, and who knows, maybe the Illuminati spirited him away…, would nod in approval before launching off on yet another scheme.

Jeremy Stockwell is so energetically convincing as Ken that the great man might as well be in the room. It’s good that the role is in the hands of another friend and he does his old pal full justice with outrageous eyebrows, eyes on full twinkle and a cackle that is straight from deepest, darkest Campbell.

All photographs courtesy of Robert Day
Ken is life-affirming, and because it plays around us, the message also infuses us as watchers… watchers can only do one thing and, you just know, we have to start being seekers!

Ken runs at The Bunker Theatre until 24th February and if you don’t go you’ll simply never know how to turn yourself on!

IThankYouTheatre Rating: ***** It has to be for Johnson’s bravery and for Ken the Seeker.

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