If you go down to the Bunker before 24 February, the interior will be virtually unrecognisable. Terry Johnson’s Ken has transferred from the Hampstead Theatre (following a sell-out 2016 run) for a limited time, starring Jeremy Stockwell alongside the writer, and marking the beginning of the venue’s 2018 spring season.
The play revolves around maverick director Ken Campbell and is basically a series of anecdotes about Johnson’s encounters with Ken, beginning with a phone call in 1978. By this time Johnson is living in a flat in London – the call is in fact intended for the previous occupant, but it doesn’t seem to matter to Ken! Before long they’re working together on various different projects, all the while Johnson is trying to get a script about a zoo finished to submit to the Royal Court…
I call it a ‘play’, but in actual fact it doesn’t feel particularly like one. This is mostly thanks to Johnson standing at a podium most of the time, reading his lines rather than actually acting, apart from the odd occasion where he does break away for a few minutes; it makes it feel rather static, and more like he’s giving a talk than performing in a play. Given the outrageous material it would surely work better as a ‘proper’ play – instead it becomes more of a vanity project.
It’s a bit of a shame, as it seems so promising when you first step into the auditorium. Tim Shortall’s design has completely transformed the black box into a very 70s living room, complete with rugs, cushions, different chairs, various lamps and a fantastic soundtrack. Though it is nice to know just how versatile the space is, and how much ambition it can cope with.
Jeremy Stockwell plays Ken (as well as a few other minor characters), also reprising his role from Hampstead, and is incredibly animated in the part. He vividly brings Ken to life over the course of 90 minutes, starting off sat amongst the audience and constantly moving around the auditorium – a complete contrast to his co-star.
Sadly, I think something like this is more aimed towards people who are aware of Ken Campbell’s life & work rather than novices; whilst a good chunk of the audience found it hilarious, more often than not I felt slightly excluded from the joke because of my lack of knowledge. So if you are aware of his story then the chances are you will really enjoy yourself – and you’d probably appreciate any moments where they might slip up (and decide between themselves whether to try it again or not) more entertaining than someone trying & failing to engage with an unknown subject.
My verdict? One for Ken Campbell fans rather than complete novices, as it is a tad too exclusive at times – Jeremy Stockwell’s performance does most of the work.
Ken runs at The Bunker Theatre until 24 February 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.