BWW Review: KEN, The Bunker

BWW Review: KEN, The Bunker

BWW Review: KEN, The BunkerIn the early 80s, there were two men called Ken who seemed to be everywhere. Both were iconoclasts and "traditional" English eccentrics; both seemed to be simultaneously anti-establishment but also very much located at the heart of it; and both spoke in the same Estuary English accent that infuriated a previous generation of Jacob Rees-Moggs / David Starkeys. One was Livingstone, a radical politician with a sense of theatre; the other Campbell, a radical theatre-maker with a sense of politics.

If the Livingstone Ken has engineered something of a political death, the Campbell Ken has been gone ten years now: but his legacy lives on, not just with alumni like Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy and Nina Conti hoovering up awards, but also in revivals (like his daughter, Daisy's, Cosmic Trigger at the Cockpit last year).

So it's no surprise to see Terry Johnson's Ken transfer from Hampstead Theatre to The Bunker, the underground space transformed into a hippy hangout with joss sticks, cushions and the whiff of the counterculture pervading the air.

Terry Johnson himself plays the Writer, Terry Johnson, (it's that kind of show), recounting key incidents in Ken's life from their first meeting in 1979, when Johnson was cajoled by Campbell's lifelong combination of charm and hostility into acting in a 24 hour avant-garde production for the Edinburgh Fringe, right up to his funeral (anagrammed, inevitably, by Ken to Real Fun).

We learn of the crazy life on set (which, it has to be said, feels a bit different from the perspective of 2017...), Ken's non-stop pursuit of the positive side of life (well, positive from his viewpoint) and of his unique approach to casting (if they turn up on spec, they're interested, so give them a go).

Seeping through the bonkersness of it all, one discerns, slowly at first, then with great clarity, Ken's unique sense of what theatre could actually do. His barked orders may seem random, but they grew from a coherent theatrical philosophy that was rooted in the need to challenge and entertain, a commitment not to talk down to audiences and the knowledge that what was on stage could only work as an extension of what was off stage. So he did not like budgets, the accounts and the sets and other stuff acquired getting in the way of the people whose lives were his sources and his endless fascination.

God knows, he must have infuriated plenty along the way, but for many, as Johnson acknowledges, the price was worth paying, as nobody did it quite like Ken.

Back at the show, the whole conceit of the Writer's conversation with Ken can only work if we believe in Ken - fortunately, we do, as the multi-talented Jeremy Stockwell recreates the old bounder before our very eyes. There's the nasal twang, the lives-of-their-own eyebrows, the iron-clad self-confidence. And also the wit, the generosity, the embracing of risk. The man emerges from behind the obsessive desire to perform, to provoke, to proclaim.

(Of course, the two old hands are at their best when Stockwell fluffs a line and it all goes meta with ad libs, audience participation (not scary though) and an excursion off-piste that we could happily have watched all night).

Many in the audience were too young to recall the days when Ken seemed to be on Channel Four every night doing something outrageous - but that's a testament to both his enduring influence on British theatre, television and film and to the universal appeal of his world, one ever teetering on the edge of collapse. Perhaps this new generation of Ken fans realise that his madness has proved a much truer reflection of things than sober analyses of The State Of The Nation or issue-led dramas that leave people sucking on a thoughtful tooth. Ten years on, we're only just catching up with Ken - and it's fun.

Ken continues at The Bunker until 24 February.

Photo Robert Day

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