Three Mills Island, Bromley-by-Bow, Saturday May 24, 5.30 p.m.: I have walked past the security guards, muttered the passwords "very strange connections" to them, and am now foregathering with around 150 others for the first performance in 17 years of Neil Oram's legendary ten-play cycle The Warp, once again directed by Ken Campbell. The atmosphere is one of rather bizarre school play – with parents of actors (Nina Conti's father Tom, Alan Cox's father Brian; Alan Bates cannot make it to support son Ben) and friends (Samuel West, here to cheer on Cox and grinningly envy his role in such an event) – crossed with reunion, as actors in the original production mingle with the real-life templates of their characters.
Campbell delivers a preliminary address, describing the event as "the Warp decathlon" and praising the energy and determination of Cox for taking on "the longest and most taxing role in the whole of drama; Phil Masters [the lead character, based closely upon Oram himself] appears in every scene except four, and they're very short ones." The event is scheduled to end around the same time tomorrow, with standard intervals between plays and a sizeable breakfast break... but we are already half an hour late.
6.25 p.m.: Play 1 begins, outside, with a scene of past-life regression in 15th-century Bavaria, in which "Phil" is menaced by a Baron clad only in black tights and knitted antlers. We then move inside the vast studio, hung with banners and strewn with around a dozen groups of stage rostra, for the promenade performance proper. Cox begins as he will continue, with engagingly fine naturalistic characterisation peppered with depth-charges of humour. There is no shame in taking the occasional prompt, as when he yells over to the author to check the date and time of "his" birth.
8.45 p.m.: A group of Robot Aliens appear at the beginning of Play 2, wielding sink plungers left over from Campbell's solo show Jamais Vu. Over the next day or so, members of the international cast of around 30 will be called upon to impersonate Scientology auditors, Tuvan throat-singers, Buckminster Fuller, Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh and characters named "Burping Ada" and "Cynthia, Laser Christ Woman". A programme credit reads "Strawberries, turds and baby knitted by...". We're not in Kansas any more...
11.35 p.m.: Early in Play 3, the first missing artist – "Krishnamurti has left the building," jokes Cox. Other than the actors delivering lines, it is now impossible to tell who is who in the space; performers and audience blend. Actors experience the surreal phenomenon of walking past both those who first played their characters and those upon whom the characters are based.
2.30 a.m. Sunday: Some of us are beginning to drop, either crawling off for a nap (the pink-frocked little girl who followed Cox around in fascination has already gone, but will return) or simply "zoning out" – by the forty-third or so Socratic dialogue about brain-change or spiritual enlightenment, one does not so much listen attentively as randomly sample the lines.
3.40 a.m.: Consciousness has entered a non-Euclidean space in Play 4. I ponder Arthur the Cosmic Grocer's line "I started to hear strange music coming from Norway" for several seconds before realising he actually said "...from nowhere", but still have no idea what it was that I misheard as "How much do you want for a war muffin?" A mysterious Man in Black circulates, looking partly sinister, partly like George bereft of Gilbert. After three and a half hours, the longest play of the cycle in this performance, John Joyce ritualistically lifts aloft his prompt copy and closes it to ragged cheering.
7.20 a.m.: Sleeping bodies are strewn around and beneath the playing space. Someone is using the knitted baby as a pillow. The only actor I have seen before, Ben Bates, is clearly liberated by the fluidity and community of such a production. However, his speech as a motor mechanic visited by aliens is accompanied by sonorous snores from under a neighbouring stage. A discreet hunt reveals the culprit to be author Neil Oram; Campbell directs the video cameraman to get some footage of the dormant hulk.
8.20 a.m.: End of play 5; breakfast break. We are now apparently some two and a half to three hours behind schedule. I emerge from the cafe in time for the last quarter of the interval entertainment, a 20-minute version of War And Peace by Marcel Steiner's Smallest Theatre In The World.
9.40 a.m.: Cues are growing sluggish. A further increasing drawback is that relationships are shown onstage, but actual events often only recounted. This will grow more crippling as the later plays move into the territory of New Age soap opera, with fewer bizarre occurrences and meetings with remarkable men and more fallout from Phil Masters' apparently prodigious sexual charisma. The balance of comedy and seriousness in the cycle is fine, but the seriousness has dated terribly, often resembling cracker-barrel metaphysics.
12.20 p.m.: Midway through Play 7, Alan Cox announces to the 70 or so of us (cast and audience) remaining in the hall, "Ladies and gentlemen, I've fallen at the seventh"; he goes back onto the book for major speeches. An hour later the play ends, and it is uncertain whether Cox can continue. He is given breathing exercises, massage and advice from his father and Russell Denton, who first played Phil. Others among us recharge by walking through the "energy spiral" laid out in the courtyard by visitors from the mystical Italian mountain-dwelling community of Damanhur, or chat to the folk executing a huge painting of the event.
3.15p.m.: Cox returns for Play 8; the cheers are loud and long, and a palpable wave of support from all quarters buoys him up. However his energy levels may oscillate, the style and calibre of his performance never flag. An hour later, an exchange about self-denial includes the line, "We could deny going to sleep tonight" – the laughter is that of a community of survivors. Cox accidentally pulls off Ben Porter's wig; a beautiful passage of ad-libbing ensues, and it becomes a running gag for the remainder of the cycle. The scheduled end time passes and we still have two plays to go, but those of us remaining have clearly signed up for the duration.
8.55 p.m.: As we wait for the final play of the cycle to begin, members of the company are jamming party-fashion with Nick Tigg and his musicians. The score is effective throughout, although as one member of the company remarks to me, "I never want to hear another accordion as long as I live." An exhausted home-stretch atmosphere pervades, as Phil's attempts in the play to regain his beloved Rachel and his son take second place to the event itself.
11.27 p.m.: The final scene – a confrontation in 1977 Sutton Coldfield with a nutcase receiving etheric transmissions from various other characters – ends with Phil's climactic declaration, John Joyce slowly closes the ring binder above his head, and fatigued jubilation breaks out. Not so much a curtain call as a group hug; Cox has been positively heroic, and deserves to be chaired around the hall, if any of us had the strength to do so. The company have been through so much, and the rest of us with them. It feels as if things should carry on indefinitely, but I slip away sadly, just in time to miss the last Tube. There are apparently to be other such projects here; Campbellian "seekers" are advised not to miss them.
Written as a feature-length draft for the Financial Times; a rewritten, standard-length review was printed.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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