Albany Theatre, London SE8
28-29 March/2-3 May, 1998

Ken Campbell is growing remarkably adept at assembling casts featuring the children of major actors for his presentations of The Warp. The current cast lacks Alan (son of Brian) Cox and Benedick (son of Alan) Bates, both of whom had appeared in last May's outing, the first since 1980; present and correct, though, are Nina (daughter of Tom) Conti as the protagonist's wife, and John Alderton and Pauline Collins's daughter Kate in a clutch of roles from an infant boy to a devotee of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh. The offspring stakes were further augmented by the presence in the lead role of Oliver Senton, son of a bloke with whom Campbell used to act at school, and in the director's chair of Campbell's own teenage daughter Daisy.

That phrase "present and correct" is meaningful. Given that The Warp is a cycle of ten plays (with the final two edited together for this production), scheduled to run for 24, a phenomenal memory for lines is essential for any actor involved; for the performer in the central role of Phil Masters (a thinly veiled surrogate of author Neil Oram), superhuman ability is called for Phil appears in every single scene bar three, "and they're very short ones". The role is some four and a half times longer than that of Hamlet. In the circumstances, little or no shame attaches to asking for prompts. Senton, unbelievably, is syllable-perfect on his thousands of lines over the day-long "sporting event", and combines his uncanny memory with an engagingly rounded characterisation of Phil although sympathetic, it does not shirk from an undertow of preciousness as the young protagonist encounters every countercultural motif over a period of thirty years, from Scientology to the Findhorn community.

Daisy Campbell's remarkable direction enabled me to reconsider my previously held opinion of Oram's plays. As last year's production utilised virtually every opportunity for humour, the impression was given that the fundamental narrative and thematic substance had dated; in Campbell fille's hands, a less extravagant range of tones allows the material's continuing weight to be felt. The later plays may still feel a trifle obsessive, narrowing the focus as they do onto Phil's immediate communal "family" and their Loch Ness-side mystical settlement, but even this emerges not as navel-gazing so much as the exhaustive chronicling of each individual step of Phil's spiritual journey.

In the end, however, one cannot judge The Warp by normal theatrical criteria. It is an event of unique scope for which campaign medals ought to be struck. Particular delights on this occasion included Roddy McDevitt's quietly intense climactic scene as Billy McGuinness, King of the Gypsies the only occasion on which I can ever recall being rooted to the spot, even though that spot was several yards directly behind the actor and suffered from a restricted view and Mitch Davies in a variety of ludicrously mugging cameos, bizarrely specialising in middle-aged women. Prospective punters should not be put off by the duration although stamina is required, the experience is anything but masochistic.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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