by Laura Kressly
Playwright Terry Johnson is a quiet, unassuming sort of gent. He’s the kind of person that prefers watching people get up to no good rather than joining in himself.
But when he briefly worked as an actor in the 70s and met legendary theatrical anarchist Ken Campbell, Johnson didn’t have any other choice but to embrace the chaos of Campell’s working methods. Though Johnson’s acting career was soon tucked away in favour of work at a desk, Campbell changed his life. Ken is his tender, hilarious homage to this lion of of a man, though at times it waxes too sentimental in the face of Campbell’s absurdity.
Johnson reads his narration from a podium covered in the sort of thick carpet you’d find at your nan’s, in a colour that’s not quite pink. Salmon is more accurate, or dusky rose. The same carpet covers the whole stage and stretches into the audience, where some of the seats have been replaces by vintage furniture, Indian cushions and drapes, and Moroccan lamps. It’s marvellously flamboyant and tacky, and definitely not the sort of aesthetic that sits within mainstream acceptability – like Campbell himself.
Johnson plays himself, functioning as an omniscient narrator who only occasionally engages directly with Jeremy Stockwell’s Ken. His quiet delivery is flat and detached at first, but as his emotional engagement increases, his charming awkwardness becomes more dynamic. Stockwell is a delightful, clownish performer who has the audience belly laughing with his outrageous, unashamed absurdity. Even when his lines get away from him, the audience is on his side.
The script is bighearted and warm, though it continues much too long after it’s natural end. It’s in this pseudo-epilogue that we see the scale of the impact that Campbell had on Johnson, but the point is overly laboured. This is a small sin in light of the work’s impact, though.
It’s a deliciously funny show, and Lisa Stirling’s direction has paced it perfectly to bring out the humour. But it’s not all slapstick and close-to-the-bone sex jokes in durational works at the Edinburgh Festival. Johnson’s story is laden with spirit and chaos and love for theatre and the people that inhabit it.
Ken runs through 24 February.