Ken

Wed 1st – Mon 27th August 2018

reviews

Emilia Andrews

at 09:58 on 13th Aug 2018

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“Ken? Ken Who?” was the first thing that I asked myself when reading the title of this play. The ambiguous title alone is enough to inspire curiosity, to draw an audience in. And so it did – the venue was full, mainly with a middle-aged demographic who were perhaps more likely to know more about Ken, while I sat eagerly waiting to discover who Ken was.

‘Ken’, it transpires, refers to the director Ken Campbell, who this well-narrated play is all about. Writer Terry Johnson does a brilliant job of narrating with an exceptionally well written script. The performance tells the story of Ken (played by Jeremy Stockwell) and his growing friendship with a young playwright (played by Terry Johnson).

Stockwell does an extraordinary job of emulating Ken’s eccentric and vibrant character as he bounces around the room, keeping the audience’s heads turning at all times. While Johnson remains primarily behind his podium on the stage, Stockwell makes the entire room his stage. Being in that little space reminded me of the experience of reading a book; I felt more like I was inside of the story than like I was simply being told one.

There is a real sense of admiration for Ken in the way Johnson speaks of him. This adds to the immersive quality of the play and made me feel that I knew a lot more about Ken and his impact on the world of theatre than I knew when I arrived. Whilst funny at times, the play is also emotive and I found myself tearing up a little as Johnson recounts Ken’s funeral, accompanied by the serene sound of birds tweeting.

One drawback of the performance is that it does begin to drag. There are a number points where the play could end poignantly but instead continues, which left me shuffling on my chair wondering when would be the right time to poise my hands for an applause. Although, this is comically picked up on by Stockwell who, as the now-dead Ken, comments that it’s time for the end, grabs his suitcase and walks off.

Rather than having an interval, the performance is split by a gag involving knicker elastic and a brick. This did seem a bit jarring and was the only moment which really detracted from the engrossing nature of the performance. However, Stockwell appeared to not break character at this point and seemed equally as eccentric here, as he pushed past an audience member who he told to “fuck off out the way!”

The brilliant job which Stockwell and Johnson do of bringing Ken to life in the room left me feeling curious, with a desire to go home and read up more about Ken, a man so clearly well-loved and respected. So whether you know anything about Ken Campbell or not, this play is one from which you are sure to feel that you’ve learned something new.

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Charlie Norton

at 13:03 on 13th Aug 2018

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‘Ken’ is Terry Johnson’s hilarious, tender and inspired eulogy to the famously eccentric writer and theatre director, Ken Campbell. The events in the play are experienced through the eyes of Johnson himself, who skilfully navigates memories of his friendship with Ken from 1978 up until his death ten years ago. He delivers sharply comic anecdotes and captures the spirit of the times with a nostalgic glance back at the sexual and emotional climate of his youth.

Hampstead Theatre achieve a sense of intimacy through an inspired staging of the play, with Johnson delivering his tale to an audience seated on beanbags and barstools, amongst psychedelic wall-hangings. The two-man cast capitalizes on this immersive atmosphere through spontaneous interactions with the crowd and masterful command of the space, with Jeremy Stockwell parting the red-lit seas of the audience as he struts from place to place. Whilst this creative use of the space is largely successful, there is an unfortunate issue with visibility from some angles. As the narrative progresses, both cast members inhabit a range of colourful characters: Stockwell portrays bizarre individuals such as Cubist Mitch and chiffon-clad Maya with aplomb, and Johnson executes a variety of accents with great skill. The rapidity of these shifts in role momentarily confuses the plot at points, though this is mostly justified by the comic value of the characters.

The real triumph of the production is the seamless chemistry of the two central characters, Ken and Terry, and the commitment with which Stockwell and Johnson embody these respective roles. Johnson offers a necessary method to the madness of Ken’s epigrammatic and hyperactive musings, captivating the audience from the outset with impeccable diction and flawless comic timing. Equally, Stockwell counters the self-admitted pessimism of the narrator with his vibrant and incredibly detailed characterisation of a character fascinated with the imagination.

The tale itself consists of a sequence of riotous anecdotes, which vary from the vulgar to the absurd – Ken manages to conjure a causal relationship between goats and pudding – and the audience are consistently in roars of laughter. The comedic moments are grounded by tender and, at times, painful recollections. At what is perceptibly the climax of the tale, Johnson handles the revelation of Ken’s tragic suicide with incredible sensitivity, allowing the audience to share a cathartic moment of nostalgia and grief. A minor criticism would be that the meditation on the loss becomes rather lengthy and indulgent, inhibiting the pace of the narrative – though this is understandable considering the writer’s real-life connection with the subject.

The production is all the more poignant in the context of the Fringe, standing as a testament to the importance of the festival itself and arts in general. Ken’s zest for life is infectious and the impact of his creative and daring mind upon the individuals depicted in the play seeps into the audience. To summarise the show with an aphorism is, perhaps, reductive, but I believe the spirit of Ken himself and of the play written in his memory is captured by his statement: “if you’re curious, anything is possible”.

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