Royal National Theatre (Cottesloe)/Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Opened 2 October, 1996

After his several previous one-man shows, Ken Campbell bestrides the world of solo theatrical weirdness like an improbably-sculpted colossus. Violin Time has been seen over the last year or so in various stages of development, but this we must assume is the definitive version. As such, naturally, it bears only a tenuous relation to the definitive version recently published by Methuen; were he to perform that text in its entirety, Campbell assures us, it "would take as long as War And Peace and then a bit of the War again."

At first on the press night he was a little uneasy and hesitant, perhaps believing the sentiment he jokingly attributed to Richard Eyre that this show would have "to be even better than [the critics] said your last one was." To an extent, also, Violin Time assumes that the "seekers" in the audience will be familiar at least in passing either with Campbell's style or the oddities he addresses which in this case include est therapy, the conspiracy to force confederation of Newfoundland with Canada in 1948, the Cathar heresy and ferrets. He also touches on interplanetary reincarnation... never mind which planet he may have been on in a previous life, it is mind-boggling enough to speculate which planet he is on in this one.

Somehow, though, he manages to draw all these areas (and several others) into a narrative which, if not exactly coherent, is crazily compelling and enormous fun. He has a magnificent ear for phrases which sound inherently absurd, talking about writing "notes to some mice" and explaining the name of his musical accompanist, Thieu-Hoa Vuong (who doodles quietly away on her violin at certain times, interjecting musical "stings" at appropriate points in his ramble), as being "pronounced like the question to which the answer might be 'coffee': 'Tea or Wha'?'" And surely there can be no more infectiously funny sight than Ken Campbell's face creasing into a mask of incredulous hilarity when confronted with an unexpected and peculiar turn of events.

Violin Time is the funniest of his solo shows on the page. In performance, it is impossible to convey the infinite regression of footnotes, or as he acknowledges to take the time to recount his entire tale of semi-romantic attachment and spirit possession (imagine if Foucault's Pendulum had been written by Ken Dodd instead of Umberto Eco). It may not be the best point of entry into Campbell's oeuvre which is probably 1994's Mystery Bruises or the compendium show Theatre Stories but for anyone in search of the mental equivalent of a fairground House of Fun, Campbell's premises are the original and best.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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