Review: COSMIC TRIGGER THE PLAY, Cockpit Theatre

By: May. 06, 2017

So what, then, is Cosmic Trigger The Play? At times, yeah, a play, but at other times a cabaret, a documentary, a history lesson, a biography, a tribute, a literary adventure, a tragedy and a comedy. Is it, dare I use the word, perhaps most aptly labelled "A Happening"?

No matter how you describe it, it is four hours of great fun that constantly threatens to go off the rails, but just about stays on track, as the drugs, the paranoia and the joie-de-vivre pile on top of each other in a great tower of 70s hokum - with the glinting edge of relevance to 2017 cutting through any cynical dismissal of its key themes.

We're in the swinging Sixties at the offices of Playboy where Robert Anton Wilson sifts through the bonkers conspiracy letters that arrive by the sackload. Realising that they are on to something, he and fellow scribbler Robert Shea decide to weave all the crazy stuff into a book they call Illuminatus, a project that takes over their lives and soon garners a global cult following (Dan Brown must have been looking on and thinking, "Hmm..."). Wilson jumps headfirst into the emerging counterculture, hobnobbing with Timothy Leary, William S Burroughs and the Charles Mansonesque figure (without the murders) Kerry Thornley - pass the hookah please.

Daisy Campbell's twisting, tantalising, treat of a script isn't satisfied with just telling that story - she also tells the story of her father's (cult director Ken Campbell) 1976 staging of Illuminatus in Liverpool and later at the National Theatre in its Mary Whitehouse baiting days. Cue plenty of excellent jokes about the excesses of radical experimental theatre and dollops of goat blood!

And, topping off these narratives layered upon narratives, there's Cosmic Trigger itself, the book about the book and the source for the play based on the book about the book - well, you know, sort of.

Got all that? Well, it doesn't really matter if you haven't, because, over its four hours running time, you will, as the metas stack up . Amazingly, it's never difficult to follow, a testimony to the clarity of vision in the writing, the skills of actors playing multiple roles (sometimes naked - you have been warned) and a staging that maintains an audience-friendly pace through the New Age mumbo-jumbo and the incipient psychosis that, unlike in the case of Phillip K Dick (with whom he shared many traits), Wilson just about keeps at bay. In his case, the trips are a lot of fun and only a little scary!

It's funny and clever and delightful too. Our heroes may not have much respect for straight society, but they are decent people who love each other and the world around them (though, of course, not everyone came out the other side unscathed). Oliver Senton plays Wilson as a guide and sardonic commentator on the craziness of the consumer-driven capitalism driving the USA (and, soon, the world) to a state where one can never have enough. Kate Alderton's Arlen Wilson is a bra-burning feminist poet, but (if that's the right word) full of love for her husband and her children, who are as sweet as can be.

If Mr and Mrs Wilson (how plain those names sound for such unplain individuals) hold the centre of the plot together, there are plenty of splendid performances swirling around them. Jethro Skinner is full of bonhomie and voracious sexuality as Timothy Leary, not even cowed by prison, inspiring a bravura song and dance number every bit as good as Dr Evil's "It's A Hard Knock Life". Leigh Kelly's Goat Man is (how can I put this?) eye-catching and Josh Darcy's Ken Campbell is an uncanny impersonation of the old rogue, all unpredictable charisma and commitment.

Though £8 is a little steep for the programme, it does include a superb essay by John Higgs (who wrote the definitive story of pop anarchists, The KLF, who trace their roots back to Ken Campbell's seminal show) which brings us right up to date with the hijacking of the fun element of conspiracy theories by the alt-right in the post-truth world of 2017 - though, rightly, he claims that we have always lived in a "post-truth" world, it's just that its creators are more brazen and more powerful than ever. When the images of boobs and balls and a squid singing Radiohead's "Creep" (every bit as brilliant as it sounds) fade from the mind, Wilson's ideas (like Phillip K Dick's smuggled into the mainstream) seem closer and closer to reality every day.

There probably isn't a cult directing our world from Sirius (at his outer limits, Wilson can go a bit David Icke, never without a twinkle in his eye though), but, in an interconnected world of instant communication, the question of who is working with whom and to what end, is no less relevant to the Left and the non-political, for all of its appropriation by the Right, led by their champion, tweeting outlandish allegations at 3.00am from The White House. How the world can escape from the Chapel perilous into which it is being led and away from a state of paranoia into agnosticism, is the key question for our times.

Cosmic Trigger The Play is a Love & Will production at the Cockpit Theatre until 27 May.

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Gary Naylor is chief London reviewer for BroadwayWorld ( and feels privileged to see so much of his home city's theatre. He writes about ... Gary Naylor">(read more about this author)



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