Theatrical firsts are two a penny, but this is the first show I have attended that required a password ("strange connections"). It's also the first time I've gone to the theatre armed with a toothbrush, toilet paper and alarm clock (just in case). Neil Oram's science fiction epic is immense: 10 "books" of two to three hours each, played with brief intervals between them, and coming in at somewhere around 24 to 30 hours, depending on how willing or able the cast are to get a move on.
In the event, about 200 "seekers" turned up at 3 Mills Island in Bromley by Bow on Saturday afternoon. Campbell himself prepared the ground with a speech. He'd had the privilege to direct The Warp the only times it has previously been performed, in the mid-Seventies. It was, he said, "the play of the century". And it was also an endurance test for its leading man, Alan Cox (son of Brian), who appears in all but four short scenes. Some Italian temponauts (time-travellers to you and me) were selling their goods next door to the warehouse in which the play was being staged, Campbell added. At 6.25pm, the marathon promenade production began.
Perhaps the best way to describe The Warp is to say that it's a New Age Everyman. The central character is Phil Masters, a figure heavily modelled on the playwright himself, and whose philosophising is outdone only by his philandering. We first see him in what appears to be a past life when, called Paul, he is put to death by the evil Baron in Bavaria.
After this short opening scene, the play then cuts to the 1950s when the young Phil sets out for Rhodesia to work in the Treasury. It's quickly apparent that Phil's physical journeying is secondary to his search for enlightenment, a spiritual journey that takes in flying saucers, Scientology- style "auditing", telepathy, drugs and Buddhism, to name just a few of his most obvious influences. "It's funny," Phil observes, "I seem to be taken over by whatever comes my way". Or whoever - and that includes St Michael of the Cross, Cynthia the Laser Christ Woman, Arthur the Cosmic Grocer and Robot Aliens 1-4 (decked out with sink plungers and bin-liners). "Are you staying for the whole thing?" were the words on everyone's lips during the first interval. By the time the second break came round, another more quietly voiced question had taken its place: "Is it actually any good?" In conventional terms, the answer is no: it's a badly structured, verbose, drug-fuelled ramble, littered with longueurs. Faced with something so large, however, conventional ways of viewing it become irrelevant. What's important is the monumentality of The Warp. One bit of hippie theorising - for example, the proposition that aliens made Stonehenge to acclimatise the human brain to a lower form of vibrations - was flaky.
As further compensation, there was Cox's extraordinary performance (Hamlet will hold no fears after this) - not just a prodigious feat of memory but a delicate piece of characterisation, portraying a rampant egotist, but with warmth and affection. But that couldn't stop me nodding off for a while, waking up at 7.10am to an account of alien abduction in Haworth, home of the Brontes. At 7.54am came the first mention of the Age of Aquarius. At 8.07am, the author, who had come down from his house at Loch Ness, was spotted asleep under one of the stages, snoring loudly. At 8.18am, three hours behind schedule, the play reached its halfway point. It was time to go home.
As a matter of record, apparently Alan Cox's memory went slightly during Book Seven, and he was forced to rely on the script. By this time he had been on stage for a remarkable 14 hours.
The final curtain eventually came down at 11.27pm, a total duration of 29 hours and two minutes, including intervalsnReuse content