The sweet smell of incense invites me into the ‘cloud of stage haze’ that is Ken. This play is Terry Johnson’s celebration of Ken Campbell’s life, a theatre maverick who died in 2008 – and what a life! Johnson, the playwright, narrates hilarious anecdotes from his podium, frequently stepping down to act in a scene or engage in nigh death defying physical theatre. Jeremy Stockwell invigorates Johnson’s words as he embodies the eponymous hero with an infectious energy. He coaxes the audience into being part of the playwright’s delightful, moving memories of Ken.
Ken’s 1978 production, The Warp is the centre piece amid a patchwork of stories as Johnson relates the dramatist’s attempt to put on a 24 hour play at the Edinburgh Festival. The set acts as Ken’s lair, it is an expression of the man: eccentric, hippy-ish and bold. Like Ken’s The Warp, the whole performance, from its far-out soundtrack to Tim Shorthall’s plush, hippy-ish set, is like ‘stepping through a portal’ into a world of ‘substance appreciation’ and outlandish theatre. You cannot help but relax into the theatre-acid trip taking hold, sitting among exotic throws, cushions and armchairs.
Yet Johnson presents Ken as more than just a wacky theatre-man, he is the ultimate ‘alternative’. A man so confident in himself that he inspires confidence in others. The writer pays homage to a man who ‘in 11 seconds and 7 words’ gave him ‘half his personality’, as Ken rebukes him for being switched off to the world. This play emphasises the life-changing effect that Ken had on everyone he touched, including Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy.
There are some moments when the jokes fall flat, and Johnson’s stream of narration loses the audience. The lines are not word perfect, however, this two-man meta-play places the audience at its heart. We can feel Ken in the room with us. When Stockwell takes his bow, I cast a double take. For a moment I am sure that he is Ken, body and soul. By the end of the play it’s clear what Johnson means by ‘the ghost of a lion is least settled’, as Ken bursts at the seams with life.