Terry Johnson’s deeply personal Ken enjoyed a geographically personal run in as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where much of the play takes place. The play is a deeply affectionate reminiscence of the playwright-performer’s friendship with the infamous theatre legend Ken Campbell. What shines through is not merely a reverence for the man but a desire to celebrate his uniqueness and share the wisdoms Johnson gained from him.
Stockwell’s Ken is suitably iconic and worthy of the esteem the play holds for the man
The theatrical concept the play relies on – Johnson recounting his story to the audience while Ken (Jeremy Stockwell) lives and breathes before us, reacting to Johnson's narration and interacting with the audience - feels brilliantly natural and fresh, packed with abundant energy and dynamism (where it could very easily be static) as well as terrifically inventive. Stockwell’s Ken is suitably iconic and worthy of the esteem the play holds for Campbell. The moments where the characters of Ken and Johnson interact – with Johnson filling the role of ‘straight’ guy - are particularly strong, demonstrating a wonderful balance of the two; there are some hysterical Withnail and I-esque moments to be enjoyed.
The play’s colour and sense of humour truly shines through. The recurring jokes about it being a play about plays are hilariously ‘meta’ while Stockwell’s clown is charmingly witty. A short break that occurs in place of an interval includes an activity that was one of my favourite gags of the entire festival this year. The exotic set adds wonderful flair to the piece and is made excellent use of by the nomadic Ken.
It would be exceedingly easy for Ken to exist solely as a radio play as it is effectively just a long speech splattered with asides from Ken. But the here-and-now dynamic representation of the title character pushes the piece to far greater heights. However, on the subject of Johnson’s ‘speech’, there is a significant risk of the piece lagging on due to the simplistic concept, no matter how well it is performed. Perhaps it is because of the Fringe setting - where 60 minute running times are the norm - but this problem felt present at times during the performance. Johnson, in his script, feels so eager to share all his memories that the question becomes if he ever attempted to kill any of his darlings. The plus side of this is that the piece is so jam-packed with wisdom that viewers are very likely to walk out of the theatre trying to remember all the wonderful quotes Ken espoused.
We are told in Ken that ‘other’ is the only word capable of explaining the sheer size of life and its possibility. What is certain is that Johnson’s moving tribute certainly captures the wondrousness of this sentiment and of Campbell himself.