This tribute piece to the multi-talented Ken Campbell, who died ten years ago, comes from the pen of his old friend the playwright Terry Johnson. Campbell is clearly much missed and this celebratory evening explains why: originality, intelligence and independence made him a presence in the theatre, while a maverick sense of humour made his company appealing.
A skilled impersonator, Jeremy Stockwell takes the title role, and the show is very much for those who will recognise his Ken straight away. But as he strides through the audience, with Tim Shortall’s design recreating late 1970s hippydom, his confidence and enthusiasm are highly entertaining. And there’s a touch of insanity: old-fashioned smut alongside experimental avant-garde makes for an edgy combination that could have been elaborated on. Campbell’s theatre was a long time before ‘safe spaces’, of course, but questioning some of his actions might make the show feel less cliquey. Instead, the atmosphere is convivial-clubby, if you are being harsh. Stockwell knows how to work a crowd, but I am just not sure how you’d feel if Ken’s wasn’t a club you wanted to belong to.
Johnson takes to the stage as himself, showing a modesty and honesty as impressive as his erudition. The finale, recounting Campbell’s funeral, is vividly written. The impact Campbell had on Johnson’s life, imbued with a confessional air and a great deal of humour, is moving and intensely personal. This isn’t your standard biography. Described as a “seeker” with a perpetually open mind, it’s Campbell’s antics, the kind of shows he put on, and the tricks he played that make him memorable. Indeed, some of it is so far-fetched that a writer wouldn’t dare to make it up. And it’s interesting to journey back to a time when theatre was so different: especially in an exciting venue that’s announced such a forward-thinking season for 2018. After all, who doesn’t want to learn about the holder of the world record for the longest ever play, or the man who took it upon himself to rename the RSC? This “Essex estuary incarnation of Pan” gets a fond farewell that is suitably idiosyncratic.
Until 24 February 2018
Photo by Robert Day
Let’s not be prudish – for the West End it’s essential to put bums on seats. Taking a lesson from its real-life subject – a nude variety show presented by the eponymous producer during WWII – there’s plenty of flesh on display here and scope for good old-fashioned smutty humour. At least in 2016, Mrs Henderson’s girls are given a voice, although the exploitation of their naked bodies is glossed over as an opportunity for them to be extraordinary. And the show’s boast of bravely running throughout the Blitz provides predictable flag-waving sentimentality. Neither crowd-pleasing tactic is particularly edifying.
This is not, of course, the fault of the cast. And while Terry Johnson’s book is surprisingly leaden, his direction is good, as are a strong set from Tim Shortall and costumes by Paul Wills. Tracie Bennett and Ian Bartholomew are excellent leads as Mrs Henderson and her right-hand man, Vivian Van Damm. Entering the theatre business is a whim for her and he is Jewish – this seems to be all we need to know about them. There’s a sweet love story for Emma Williams, who leads a strong ensemble, but a general lack of emotional attachment to an assortment of quickly sketched characters. The biggest disappointment comes with a dreadful role for Jamie Foreman, a pointless narrator and comedian with dire jokes – a warm-up man who leaves you cold.
Indeed, Mrs Henderson Presents is a pretty frigid and calculated affair. Much could be forgiven if the songs were good but George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain’s tunes are mostly forgettable. The first half is particularly foggy and while things do pick up there’s really only one adventurous number – foolishly the only chance for Williams to show off a great voice. The real shock comes from Don Black’s lyrics, at times so banal that you start guessing which rhyme will come up next. Unforgivably, one song has lad, mad and bad in one verse. The performances on offer might mean the show should be a hit but the lyrics are merde.
Until 18 June 2016
Photo by Paul Coltas
The hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War One is being embraced by the cultural community in many ways. Of all the projects planned the production of Oh What A Lovely War, which opened last night, is the one that should excite theatregoers most. Also marking the show’s fiftieth birthday, the legendary Joan Littlewood’s ‘musical entertainment’ returns to its first home, the Theatre Royal Stratford East, with a respectful new version directed by Terry Johnson.
I vividly remember every history student at my school being trooped off to our local cinema for a specially arranged showing of the 1969 film. All credit to my far-sighted teachers, even if Michael Gove would have disapproved (and well done for getting a mention of him in last night, guys). The concept – telling the story of the awful events of 1914-1918 through the words and music of the time, and adamantly focusing on the average soldier, rather than his officers – is both informative and inspirational. This theatrical method tells you more than any history lesson could and its power has not diminished.
Commitment to the show is clear from the excellent ensemble. The variety of roles, as well as accents, that they take on is remarkable. Both the singing and the choreography by Lynne Page are strong. It seems a little unfair to single anyone out but Shaun Prendergast is superb as the lead narrator, as well as a perfect Sergeant Major. And Caroline Quentin is great value; as a vaudeville star who will “make a man” of anyone joining up, and an impassioned peace protestor. Her Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts is a real highlight – join in if you can.
Incredible as they seem, the events presented are facts, and make the evening a humbling experience. Johnson and his designer Lez Brotherston use technical advances developed since the show first appeared subtly, with a dot matrix sign displaying casualty figures and photographs projected on a grand scale. Both are given due reverence at key moments. There’s rich, vicious satire here, a shocking humour born from tragic events that still surprises. And there’s no room for timidity when dealing with this subject matter – credit that none is shown.
Until 15 March 2014
Photo by Nobby Clark
Written 12 February 2014 for The London Magazine
Hampstead Theatre’s new production of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria is a significant revival, not least because the writer himself directs it. One of the most successful plays to mine the rich seam of psychoanalysis, it imagines Freud on the couch. Like the man himself, it explores trauma and humour in inspired fashion. This is a work of big ideas that boggles the mind and attempts to explain deep truths.
The action is set down the road from the theatre in Maresfield Gardens, during Freud’s exile in London just before the Second World War. The father of the unconscious approaches his death with plenty of humour. Antony Sher is magnificent in the lead; Freud joins Stanley Spencer and Primo Levi as famous figures Sher has embodied so well. Elements of farce abound as he hides a naked woman in his closet from his Doctor (David Horovitch – excellent) and a visitor paying homage, none other than Salvador Dali.
The scenes of farce are a delight. Adrian Schiller’s “doolally” Dali is superb and his accent a triumph. But the play soon develops into a tense exploration of Freud’s methods and the foundation of his movement. In an emotional performance as the unwanted guest in his bathroom, Lydia Wilson highlights one of Freud’s failures, a case study he presumptuously reported as a success, and a change in his theories that she questions. Her interrogation of him reveals his doubts and the trauma in his own life.
Johnson’s play is full of clever touches and is a close study of his subject. It can’t have hurt the farce that Freud’s study was full of erotic sculptures but picking out the Surrealist painter’s visit is inspired. The final tableau, depicting Freud’s dream, realised by Lez Brotherson’s superbly ambitious set, rises to the challenge of a problem Johnson highlights – that depicting the unconscious diminishes it – but can still create fine theatre.
Until 12 October 2013
Photo by Alaistair Muir
Written 13 September 2013 for The London Magazine