The number of the beast

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The Independent Culture
There have been no fewer than five one-man shows at this year's Barclays New Stages Festival. An insignificant statistic, you might think. But consider that, of these five, three could be classed as straight and the other two as comic, and it becomes obvious that this is no chance formation but a mysteriously ordained representation of the pentacle, the sign by which the devil himself can be invoked.

Ken Campbell, a class A lunatic, has a thing about numerology and, in his current monologic endeavour, Theatre Stories, a highly contagious obsession with the numbers two, three and 23. These are the numbers, he tells us, that link Carl Jung's dream of a fountain in a bleak city with the establishment, next to a drainhole, of his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool and the subsequent 22-hour staging by that company of a little known sci-fi trilogy, Illuminatus. A sceptical mind might suggest that Campbell uses numbers to create a semblance of structure for what would otherwise be just a lumpen mass of well-worn theatrical anecdotes.

Thankfully, that other comic one-man show, The Solo Experience, has been on hand to act as a yarnspinning yardstick. Here, Mark Long of the People Show resembles Ken in a parallel universe; a sort of anti-Ken, the main difference between them being a positive/ negative factor of hair. Otherwise, they share the same slack dress sense, trademark London accent, face of putty and penchant for futile props (in Campbell's case, a feather duster placed politely over a statue of Ken Dodd; in Long's, a performing Hoover). Both are fantastical, random name-droppers: Campbell fooled the theatre world in the early Eighties by forging letters from Trevor Nunn; Long sat on Albert Einstein's knee at the age of five, thus qualifying him to take us on a trip to that "magical place, the fourth dimensions, one, two and three".

There is no keener deployer of pseudo-scientific language, it must be said, than Campbell. Recalling how repeating his mantra ("boing") nonstop before an interview at Watford Palace Theatre rendered him speechless, he gawps in wonder: "I was in some kind of other dimension." But this sort of mumbo-jumbo never becomes irksome in the way that Long's constant downgrading of scientific understanding does. The latter cuts the corners off facts - conflating Einstein's two separate theories of relativity and giving a sub-Spielberg account of travelling at the speed of light. Worse, he gets carried away with his analogies. Trying to describe the first dimension, he compares the state of the toilet in the Royal Court foyer to that of an impoverished Indian man (called Mr Patel), who then returns in increasingly tasteless incarnations as each successive dimension is breached.

Campbell also treats the world as a lateral thinker's plaything, hopping with ease from small towns with "repertatory" theatres to small islands in the New Hebrides, but somehow the connections he makes sound plausible, when Long's sound merely glib. It is difficult to know why this should be. Both men are champions of tosh and Long is undeniably skilled as a performer. Yet if the numerical phenomena that Campbell plucks out of thin air smack of falsity it's as though the fault lies with us, not him. What makes him trustworthy and Long not finally seems to come down to the way both address the audience. When Long refers to Macbeth it is to indulge in a soliloquy. Campbell on the other hand is more perplexed by the role of the Porter. "Should the actor see the audience as individuals or just linoleum?" Campbell's genius is to convince you that you're a well-rounded buddy, Long's is to make you feel like a two-dimensional surface area. Which some people might prefer, of course. It's a chemical thing.

n 'Theatre Stories' closes tonight. The festival continues to 6 July. Booking: 0171-730 2554