by NEIL ORAM
Introduction copyright © 1999-2000 Ian Shuttleworth. All rights reserved.
First encounters: the "Noble Attempt"
In 1997, I went along to a warehouse on an island in East London to watch thirty-odd people play a couple of hundred-odd (very odd) characters over... well, as it turned out, over 29 hours; it was scheduled to last only 22, but the lead actor went into meltdown about two-thirds of the way through. (He needed vigorous brain and body massage from his father actor Brian Cox and Russell Denton, who had first played the role but gave up acting to become a gardener.)
I'd known about The Warp from places like the Guinness Book Of Records, which listed it as the longest play in the world actually, it's written as ten plays, but few of them make sense on their own and they're almost always performed in one continuous marathon. This, though, had been my first chance to see it; when it had last been performed, on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1980, I'd still been a schoolboy in Belfast. And of all the critics there at this first performance for a new generation (God, I make it sound like a vat of Pepsi), I was the only one who lasted the distance. (The guy from The Independent left about halfway through and phoned me up to find out what happened; the Sunday Times sent along comedian Richard Herring, who managed only around ten hours... the wimp!) I was stimulated, I was battered, I was entertained... I don't mind admitting, I was bored for a few hours during the lengthy "The Archers on acid" Loch Ness sequences (although I've since changed my mind about those parts of the play)... but above all, I was hooked.
For a few years I'd been on a bit more than nodding terms with Ken Campbell the man who directed The Warp (on that occasion), who in fact persuaded Neil Oram to write it in the first place, and in general one of Britain's premier theatrical fruitcakes. (If you've never heard his analysis of the part of Angus in Macbeth "Why do the others ignore him? Do they not see him? Is he a dwarf?" your life is the poorer.) After this, though, I became a kind of camp follower. I asked Ken to let me know about any subsequent performances surely, I reasoned, there had to be some; this massive company couldn't have been assembled just for a one-off.
A month or so later, he rang me. Alan Cox, who had played the central role of Phil Masters (the longest role in theatre, some five and a half times the length of Hamlet; Phil is onstage, explains Ken, "in every scene except four, and they're very short ones"), didn't want to do it again I think he was still spooning his brains back in through his ears at that point but a "masked challenger" had asked to take a pop at the part. So there would be, not quite a performance, but an acted-out line run, and "the only way you get to see it," said Ken, "is to be in it." So a couple of weeks later I found myself playing a mediaeval Bavarian peasant, Rachel's stepfather Mulford (wrestling an imaginary rifle from the hands of playwright Terry Johnson as Jake), a whacked-out Glynn Dyson (I played him as if he were Ken... well, it seemed to make sense) and I'm so proud of this I became only the third person ever to play Arthur the Cosmic Grocer, a role originated by Jim Broadbent. "Challenger X", whose identity was revealed only when the first line was spoken, turned out to be Ken's daughter Daisy; she was word-perfect, but the rest of us weren't, so at some point in Play 7 we knocked it on the head and went off for a kip.
Mending fires and the presence of greatness
And there it rested for several months, until an old school friend of Ken's got back in touch with him. David Senton had taken the lead in their school plays (according to Ken, "He would play Macbeth when I was a witch"), but had gone into business rather than acting. Now, though, his son was an actor, and would Ken like to take a look at him? Ken contacted Oliver Senton, and for want of anything else suggested that he take a look at the part of Phil, saying it would go on when Oliver knew the part. A couple of months later, Oliver rang up and said he'd learnt it. Ken sent official Warp prompter John Joyce (who, in 1979, had created the role of Billy McGuinness) round to test him; John reported back, "Not only is he word perfect, but he knows them so well he can carry on reciting them while he's mending the electric fire in his flat!" It had to be staged pretty sharpish, before they leaked out.
In March, 1998, The Warp went on at the Albany Theatre, Deptford. This time I knew what I was in for, prepared my body-clock, took a picnic basket, sort of thing...
It was stunning. Alan Cox is a damned fine actor (I've seen him since in everything from Chekhov to Wilde), but in all fairness, after a certain point during that Three Mills Island performance he had had to concentrate more on the lines than on his actual performance. Oliver was just great. And he was matched by pretty much the whole company: Nina Conti as Meg, Kate Alderton in a whole clutch of roles (a lot of children of famous actors have appeared in this show; Benedick Bates had been in the "Noble Attempt", with Samuel West in the audience), Mitch Davies with his great Buster Keaton face that gets funnier the straighter he tries to look... During Billy McGuinness's transmogrification scene at the end of Play 2, I cried. I still cry virtually every time I see Roddy McDevitt perform it. I think it may be the most powerful single scene I've ever seen on a stage. Daisy Campbell, who had directed the show this time out, paid great attention both to the tiniest details and to the grand sweep of events in the play, managing to keep characters palpably human at all times even amid the most cosmic of goings-on.
So it had worked. So another batch of performances was arranged, again at the Albany... the perfect venue: with a dozen and more alcoves around the edge of its oval space, the actors could perform around the edges of the hall, leaving the audience to squat (doze off, skin up, etc.) in the middle and best of all, when you looked up into that curved scaffolding roof, it seemed as if you actually were in the inside of a flying saucer! The show went on every weekend in May 1998. I must admit, I took it easy that month: I only went to weeks one, three and five. But on those Saturday afternoons, the walk in the sun from New Cross station to the theatre felt like I was coming home. (Of course, it probably helped that I'd just got together with the love of my life...) At one performance, one of the musicians paid me the ultimate compliment: on spotting me, he said, "Ah, now we can start!"
After one final performance at Spitalfields Market in September, Oliver Senton left the role of Phil; it's all very well, but something like The Warp takes up a lot of time, and if you're a jobbing actor, then doing that sort of thing for no money (Ken: "Forget 'poor theatre' this is debtor's theatre!") doesn't make a lot of sense. Ken decided to found a "School for Phils", held over ten weeks one play a week. Nine would-be Phils started out; by the end only one was left. He was Johnny Stallings, a 47-year-old actor from Washington state who'd come over to see one of the May performances (and supplied breakfast-time entertainment during one of the breaks by giving us a one-man King Lear whilst making waffles) and had now returned to try and take it on properly.
As Johnny was the first to admit, it took him a long time to get on top of the part. The first performance, in Brentwood in January 1999, was pretty ropey. The second, in the dust-ridden upstairs space in the legendary Roundhouse (where The Warp had previously been unleashed on audiences nearly twenty years ago), was still fairly untogether; Johnny had learnt the lines, but had little sense of the scene-to-scene structure of the play. It's worth pointing out that rehearsals for the play are minimal... hell, how can you rehearse something this sprawling? There's certainly no such thing as a full or even partial run-through prior to the actual night/day/next night. But the third and final performance before Johnny's visa expired and he had to go back to the States this time, in the labyrinthine cellars of the Roundhouse was something really very special indeed. Johnny went out on a high, having been presented after his first performance with a certificate confirming that he had survived the ordeal, and dubbing him henceforth Awesome Starlings. The last we heard, he was trying to assemble a North American company to tackle the play.
I have seen the future, and it raves
Oliver returned for a one-off at Hoxton Hall in early May, which was unique in that, for the first time since 1980, The Warp was staged non-continuously; this time it was split up into two-play chunks over three days. Then, over the full moon of 30-31 May this year, the first groundbreaking collaboration with rave organisers Megatripolis was let loose, with the performance in one space whilst a 24-hour rave went on elsewhere in the so-called "Millennium Drome" beneath the arches of London Bridge railway terminus.
For my money, this was the one the total experience the show had been waiting for. It clocked in at 25 hours, making it long... but, oddly, not at all slow. The audience were more attentive, more in tune with the themes and ideas of the play... and stayed the course in greater numbers than I've ever seen. It was a complete joy.
Nine fortnightly performances followed through autumn '99, and it must be said that a certain amount of bad feeling arose, rather reinforced by the fact that, when rave organiser Fraser Clark moved his event to new premises, leaving The Warp to continue its association with the Drome, he began accusing them of ripping him off by continuing to use the title "Warp"... I mean, hell, the thing had only been around for twenty years or so beforehand!
At any rate, the whole affair continued, every fourth weekend, through the early part of 2000 now with the rather fine Nick Marcq in the lead, and directed by Claudia Egypt. Daisy Campbell, you see, had unexpectedly found herself at an advanced stage of up-the-duffness in the summer of '99, and was finally delivered of a bouncing baby Dixie in October. Dixie went on to beat Daisy's record of being the youngest performer in The Warp by an impressive margin Daisy had been six months old, Dixie a remarkable eight weeks! Anyhow, Claudia already well known to Warpgoers as "the Baron" took the reins with verve, aplomb and the requisite amount of frazzlitude as she kept a company of, oh, thirty-ish simmering through those months of frankly disappointing responses from a Drome audience who seemed to have begun to treat the thing as an incidental floor-show and nothing more.
The current batch of outbreaks wound up with a visit to the Brighton Festival on May 20-21 three years to the very weekend since the "noble attempt". Despite a local authoirty jobsworth enforcing a twelve-hour hiatus (apparently there's a law prohibiting any kind of performance between the hours of 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a Sunday), it was a joy... not just because I had some sizeable parts (camp Scientologist John Thrushman and eccentric headshrinker Dr Snarkle) for the first time in a proper, formal performance, but...
Well, I'd been feeling quite despairing for some time about the futility of trying to make a difference in anyone else's life, but there was so much fervour and devotion here not people being humourless or earnest, but putting vast amounts of energy and dedication into this effort, principally for no other reason than that they thought other people should see it! That restored my faith. I'm only sorry I had to bugger off for the last train before helping to strike the set. Well, I also think it's a pity that we spent the whole weekend in a club across the road from a fifteen-foot apple and a nine-foot mushroom, and didn't try to use them in the Sandymouth scenes...
At present, there are no concrete plans for any other performances, but there's definitely not an it's-over vibe circulating. the general assumption is that it's only a matter of time. So WATCH THIS SPACE!
Alternative 3 and 2CVs
As Ken Campbell tells it, he was living on Haverstock Hill, London NW3, in 1978 when, on returning home one day, he got a phone call from a friend saying, "I've got this great book for you to read, called Alternative 3, but you weren't in when I called round so I've given it to somebody else." (Alternative 3 had been a TV programme alleging that dozens of missing scientists had actually been spirited off to an international moonbase to work on first-contact projects; it had been an elaborate April Fool's Day stunt even the copyright date at the end of the closing titles said "April 1" but there were those around who maintained that it was really the truth and had just been presented as a hoax, and anyway there was supposed to be some other stuff in the book that hadn't made it on to the programme.) A few days later, Ion Will, the local bedsit guru, called round by Ken, saying, "I've just heard there's a garage somewhere that's got a stock of this incredible book, called Alternative 3." This time Ken didn't hang about; he and Ion Will went off to the 2CV Garage just behind Holloway jail.
So one of the hippy blokes working on these corrugated-iron cars asked the guys what they were after, and they said they'd heard somebody there had copies of Alternative 3, and immediately all the staff dropped tools and went into a meeting. Eventually Ken and Ion were invited to join in, and an intense discussion ensued on UFO abductions, psychotronic warfare... the lot. You see, in addition to being car mechanics, all these blokes were knowledgeable in some aspect or aspects of high weirdness. But the most knowledgeable of all was Neil Oram, then aged around 40. He had, it seemed, been everywhere and done everything. In fact, it was he who'd somehow bought 100 copies of the paperback of Alternative 3 out of the back of the Sphere Books warehouse when they were burning the entire rest of the print run, having mysteriously decided not to publish!
In the shed out back
At that time, Ken was running the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, and realised that Neil's experiences might provide the material for an evening of weirdness. So he invited the guy round to his place, and... well, first, Ken had to build a shed out the back. You see, his then-wife, actress Prunella Gee, wouldn't have Neil in the house: Prue was pregnant with Daisy at the time, and was convinced that exposure to Neil's psychic vibes would create some kind of freakishness in the creature in her womb, so...
Well, once the shed had been built, they took a couple of chairs and an electric typewriter out there, and Ken just asked Neil about the various stories hed heard him relate at Neil's solo show at the ICA that spring. Neil couldn't type fast and Ken could, so Neil structured the scenes as they went along, with Ken typing out what he said. They started with the first-ever UFO conference in the British Isles (now recounted at the beginning of Play 5), and went on from there... just a load of incidents for a sort of "An Evening With Whores, or UFOs, or Tramps..."-type event, not an actual play. Ken just wanted to "sling them on", but Neil had no sympathy with such an approach. And Neil proved to be, as Ken describes it, "afflicted with memory": if asked about a particular event, he could recall not only when and where it had taken place and who had said what, virtually word for word, but could tell you what people had been wearing, what colour and pattern the curtains were, how they each took their tea... we are talking detail here. So with this immense precision and comprehensiveness, they got about two hours' worth of material done each day for about six days.
But at this point it became obvious to Neil that if he wanted to see his material become real plays, he would have to get away from Ken and work on his own. So, in the summer of 1978, he took these scenes to Somerset, where he used some of them in his creation of what became a continuous narrative ten-play cycle called The Warp. Once it was finished, he returned to London and gave Ken the 1000-page script on 28th November 1978.
Ken has also noted that Neil has had one other great talent: he'd lived his life in the most dramatically powerful order. "You know, if you're making a play out of somebody's life you have to chop and change the order things happen so that they make sense and make a better play... but Neil, man, he'd just had this natural instinct for living his entire life in the right order to begin with!" And pretty much everything you read in here is true, with even character names barely changed: "Dr. Bentley" was really Dr. Rolls, "Tom Davidson" is Dave Tomlin and so on.
Anyway, it was plain that this remarkable work had to be staged. Consequently, rehearsals began on 1st December 1978 at the Bubble Theatre, Hampstead.
First time on stage
With Neil's approval, Ken had contracted to put The Warp on at the ICA at the beginning of January 1979. (The arrangement had been made back in June 78 before Neil had really started working on it in Somerset.) So on 2nd January, the author's birthday, The Storm's Howling Through Tiflis, Play One of The Warp, opened at the ICA. The plan was one play a night, five nights a week over two weeks; then Plays One to Five on the following Tuesday, Plays Six to Ten on Wednesday, same arrangement Thursday and Friday, culminating in a marathon performance of the whole ten play cycle beginning on the Saturday evening and continuing through to Sunday evening, and another marathon the following weekend. When Ken had applied for an Arts Council grant, he found that huge big projects that most need official funding don't get it it goes instead (as he explains it) to smaller, more cautious things with loads of management arseholes attached to them. So when the official asked Ken how much he wanted to do this play, Ken said lots, and was advised just to lie on the application form and claim it had a cast of seven and lasted for two hours or something; of course, the guy continued, he'd probably never get any Arts Council funding ever again in his life, but if he considered this to be worth it... Well, he did. And he got the funding (and even some unofficial help from the Arts Council guy). And, sure enough, he's never had any funding from them since.
And the plays went on, and then at the urging of the cast, mark you they decided to round it off with one continuous performance. Now, nobody knew how this would turn out nobody even knew whether it could be done, whether Russell Denton could physically survive such an ordeal. But done it was, and it gave everyone such a charge that henceforth that was how The Warp was performed. Further performances at the Roundhouse and on the Edinburgh Fringe followed in 1979-80, before Russell Denton decided that he now knew more about Neil Oram than he did about himself, and quit not only the production but the acting profession, going off to be a rather happier gardener.
And that was it, and there things lay, until that May afternoon in 1997, which is where we came in above...
Oh, except that at one point, The Warp was going to come out as a trilogy of novels, published in paperback by Sphere Books. Only, just before publication, they mysteriously decided to burn the entire print run of the first volume. Makes you think, doesn't it?
This mammoth 30,000-word explanation of The Warp's themes and performance characteristics really demands a page to itself. Click here or on the heading above to go there.
Until a few years ago, I was proud that this Website hosted with Neil Oram's kind permission the definitive, synoptic, 1998 version of the text of The Warp as further edited by me. I offered to put the script up here since I passionately believed that the play should be more widely known, and it looked at the time as if any actual book publication prospect was pie in the sky.
When told that such a deal might indeed be in the offing, I removed the script from this site.
Those hopes have come to nothing. Therefore, and at Neil's request, I'm proud to host a new version of the entire script, updated by the author.
At the moment, the scripts are only available in Microsoft Word format. I hope in the miedum term to convert them to HTML and get the time to do some synoptic edition, comparing details of style and punctuation between Neil's complete version and my presumptuous one, and hopefully approaching a last-word definitive text. But this current version is certainly the play corresponding to author Neil Oram's conception of it as of 2004.
The Warp is composed of ten linked constituent plays. The title of each play in the index below links to the Word file of the playtext. The items listed beneath each title aren't links themselves, but major speeches available in a... well, not slim, but slimmer volume, Spy For Love, published by Oberon Books.
1: The Storm's Howling
1) Phil in a previous incarnation on Earth: Bavaria, 1457
2) Phil in his late teens/early twenties
3) Phil being audited by John Thrushman
4) Phil recalls a previous incarnation on Earth
5) King David, an aristocratic tramp in his middle fifties
6) Dido, a Cockney, 30, works in the amusement arcade in Charing Cross Road
7) Michael of the Cross, a spiritual channel for The Archangel Michael
8) Michael of the Cross
2: The Weather On Orion
9) Phil being audited by Thrushman
10) Phil being audited by Thrushman
11) Phil dressing whilst listening to the Gerry Mulligan Quartet's first LP
12) King David, the aristocratic tramp
13) Billy McGuinness in Hyde Park, standing on top of a step ladder
14) Billy McGuinness, the wild Irish Orator
15) King David, the aristocratic tramp
16) Billy Walsh, 38, a Soho gangster, talking to Phil Masters
17) Tiny, a burly gangster from Islington
18) Cynthia, an American, 24, living in Paris
19) Phil, hitchhiking, is stuck at the French/Spanish border in the Pyrenées
20) Billy McGuinness, the Irish Orator
3: The Rainbow Con
21) Alison, 28, a very bright, energetic Cockney [No link: this speech is not included in the finished script.]
22) Phil in Notting Hill tube station
23) Hans, a German cyberneticist, who Phil thinks is an extra-terrestrial
24) Krishnamurti, the Indian master of absolute clarity, talking to Phil, Paris
25) Phil is talking to Krishnamurti
26) The Chinese Ambassador in Athens
27) Phil describing what happened to him and his close friend Larry in Paris
28) Hazel, Phil's brassy Cockney girlfriend, 25
29) Billy McGuinness is explaining the background of European consciousness
4: Eye To Eye
30) Meg, 25, an infants' school teacher, who has just met Phil
31) Jenny, 38, is an East London hairdresser who hangs out with villains
32) Peter, 27, is good-looking, vain and aimless
33) Phil, 27, is talking to his wife Meg after doing washing up at Olympia
34) Arthur, the grocer on Sun Street, Haworth, aged about 55-60
35) Ann, aged approximately 25, has just returned from Formentera
36) Tom, quiet musician, old friend of Phil Masters
37) Phil is totally out of his mind... petrified. He has been spiked
38) Turiq, a Pakistani poet, meets Phil in a café in the Brompton Road, London
39) Meg, Phil's wife, who has just been with Tom, Phil's best friend
40) Ann, who has recently been released from a mental hospital
5: What's Got Into Them?
41) A house belonging to Mary, a purser's wife
42) King David, the aristocratic tramp
43) Gerald is a tall, lanky youth, 18 years old
44) Desmond Leslie, author of Flying Saucers Have Landed
45) Phil, 27, speaks out at the Lusty Beg UFO Conference
46) Aldiss, a psychotherapist who specialises in autistic children
47) Phil in Powis Terrace basement, electric light on
48) Tom is telling Phil the foundations for Tom's trip
49) Mary Ridd, a real Romany, talking to Phil and Meg outside the haystack
50) Hilta is a Venusian lady pretending to be from Finland
51) Phil gives this spontaneous speech in The Sanctuary
6: A Key In The Shredded
52) Jock, the local village copper who lives five miles away from Freya
53) Rock, 70, a nature mystic and guide on spiritual matters at Sandymouth
54) 1969: on top of the ancient Iron Age stone circle; Phil is talking to Rachel
55) Meg, Phil's wife, is talking to Phil after Rachel and Phil had slept together
56) Rachel, 20, very beautiful, intelligent and very energetic
57) Tom, who has become a New Age traveller
7: The Halva Question
58) Phil, 31, The Guardian of Freya
59) Phil addressing his friends at Freya, 1969
60) Marty Mission, an English poet, 40
61) Phil, 32, is talking to Tom
62) Tom Phil Masters' best friend
[NOTE: Speech links in this play are a little confused and tentative. I hope to confirm them as soon as possible.]
8: The Backlash
63) Liz, 30, is Rachel's sister
64) Jim Naxter, an English-educated Pole, an artist aged 30, is talking to Phil
65) Ralph Beak, 32, is an American therapist
66) Bob God, 45, very elegant long blonde hair
67) Rachel, 27, Phil's wife
9: The Metallic
68) Phil thinks he is going mad
10: Pure White Light
69) Bucky is Buckminster Fuller; he is about 70, American
70) Rachel, 27, is returning with Phil from a festival
71) Clava, a Dutch ex-hooker from Amsterdam, now a devotee of Rajneesh
72) Rachel is on the site of the Bungay Horse Fair, May 1977
73) The mental hospital where Rachel, Phil's wife, has been incarcerated
74) Psychiatrist's consulting room in Harley Street
75) Phil is in Ed Gale's room in Birmingham
"The true, mind-awakening tale of one man's battle with the robot-eyesing, de-human-eyesing anti-freedom forces" is now available on six 3-hour DVDs.
The source is the original 1979 ICA production (see above) starring Russell Denton, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Maria Moustaka, Stephan Williams, Pat Donovan and the Warp Band.
You can now order the 18 hour boxed set for £90 incl. p&p direct from
E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or send order and cheque to him at
Inverness-shire IV63 6XH.