ARTS : The Campbells are coming

Naseem Khan meets the cast of Ken Campbell Presents

There, processing down the marble steps of the Battersea Arts Centre, are a buxom blonde in chains and leather; a strained looking woman wearing a plastic table cloth; a Vietnamese violinist; an immensely tall drag artist sporting a flicked-up auburn wig; and, right in the centre, a chunky figure with the air of a benign but slightly dotty female librarian. This last is vaguely but inevitably identifiable as Ken Campbell, raconteur, eccentric and individualist supreme.

On this occasion, Campbell is playing the role of ringmaster. The five figures around him are his personal selection of performers from cafs, cabarets and intimate theatres in Britain and America. They all share, he says, the distinctive Campbell ethos."It's one of those happy things," he says, "like meeting five people I like at the bus stop. All five satisfy the Campbell code for good entertainers. I only like people who radiate, and who don't seem to know it. People," he goes on, "who are able to behave normally in front of three thousand people." (They aren't only to be found on stage. On good nights they're in the audience, too, shining like light bulbs, or, as he put it, "as if they've got a firework up their bums".) He likes people, in other words, like Coco Peru.

Miss Peru - aka 29-year-old Clinton E Leupp - is a wonderful creation, with the improbable gorgeous patina of a sugar plum. The Village Voice described her as "a sacrilegious experince akin to a mini Rocky Horror Picture Show", but her demeanour is distinctly ladylike. Having survived her first anxious taxi drive in London in drag, Peru sits beautifully upright on her chair, flashing slight smiles when you catch her eye. Beneath the tiny mini-skirt, long black lycra-clad legs stretch on for ever and ever beneath the table.

Sacrilegious? "Oh, I'm really very ordinary on stage," she says. "I just tell stories." So why in drag? There is, he explains, in a careful, husky voice, no drag queen flamboyance in his act, no lip-synching to Judy Garland songs or bitching with the audience. His drag is a device, he says, to snap people out of their sterotypes so he can get down to the real business, which is to open people's minds to the ordinary reality of people who play with gender. "People often ask me - `Coco, what is it you do? Who are you?' And I say, `Just imagine it's a group therapy session and' - his tone turns grabby and rough - `it's my turn to talk'."

Clinton has been talking (on various stages and in various cafs) for some years now, but it was only three years ago that he made his breakthrough. Or, as Clinton puts it, his superb violet eyes wide and candid, "I felt guided. You realise there's a force outside, and inside." And the force said to him, "Drag!"Finding Coco Peru proved a liberating experience. It put him firmly in the in-between world - not one thing or the other - where he felt able to be himself. "I was advised not to write about being gay because it would close off a whole audience. But hopefully my activism encourages people to be active about things they are passionate about in their own lives, whatever they are."

As Clinton talked earnestly about liberation, Cheryl Anderson was nodding ferociously. A 27-year-old Chicago actress, she has fled the legitimate theatre to the haven of the solo stage. "It is freeing," she said with cheerful emphasis. "It makes you feel like when you went into acting in the first place. You share your life with people" - in the manner, according to the Chicago Reader, of a "breezy Katherine Hepburn". "It gives you such a sense of community." She would never have had the nerve to join Chicago's competitive underground scene if it hadn't been for Campbell ("It's all his damned fault"). Seeing his Furtive Nudist on tour, "I thought the wind had been knocked out of me." Watch out, she warned the less Campbell-seasoned Peru, "It's scary when you meet Ken.Your life turns into this Ken Campbell whirlpool of coincidences and synchronicities."

But by this time, Campbell, looking more like Dr Dolittle than a Merlin or Svengali, hasmoved away, and is attacking a vast slab of cake with a vigour that is slightly gross.

n `Ken Campbell Presents', at BAC (0171-223 2223) to 2 April

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