A one-man, one-rut show

History of Comedy | Royal National Theatre Back to Methuselah | The Other Place, Stratford Henry V | Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
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The Royal National Theatre have us seeing double this season. A couple of weeks ago the cast of Alan Ayckbourn's twinned plays, House and Garden, started popping up on both the Lyttelton and the Olivier stages. Now over in the Cottesloe, you find not one, but two, Ken Campbells.

The Royal National Theatre have us seeing double this season. A couple of weeks ago the cast of Alan Ayckbourn's twinned plays, House and Garden, started popping up on both the Lyttelton and the Olivier stages. Now over in the Cottesloe, you find not one, but two, Ken Campbells.

This zany actor-writer and pseudo-anthropological raconteur has become a semi-institutionalised court jester at the National. In his latest mock lecture - Part One of an ongoing jokey History of Comedy - his chosen topic is ventriloquism.

Firstly, we have Ken himself, as large as life if not fractionally larger. Bald-pated and jawing away, he spasmodically widens his eyes and thrusts his unfeasibly bushy brows skywards. Then, there's his hand-operated puppet, a miniature cloned head on a stick, doing much the same.

Beyond this, Campbell is typically quirky and rambling. Three pet Labradors make a cameo appearance pulling a would-be sledge and our tongue-in-cheek tutor tosses us a jumbled history of the ventriloquial arts.

The latter includes a gleeful impersonation of an Ancient Egyptian pygmy practising ritualistic gastromancy where Campbell pretends to suck up jibbering ancestral ghosts through his jutting posterior.

He also keeps recalling episodes from his early years, growing up in Essex with a cranky school-friend whose kid sister - improbably called Nina Plashwit - became Campbell's lover for a brief spell.

Very loosely speaking, these strands all link up in the end. It's Plashwit's childhood obsession with talking in tongues that still drives Campbell, and this performance could be a ritual, mourning her death in Labrador.

However, I am always in two minds about Campbell. Whilst his nutty manner is surely genuine, it looks self-conscious, too. His mix of ever-boyish enthusiasm with that wry nasal drawl is intriguing but also potentially irritating.

Furthermore, whilst Campbell presents himself as an anarchic spirit, there's a touch of the control freak in his one-man format. His endless digression may be amusingly free-wheeling and a post-modern alternative to traditional story telling, yet they can seem tiresomely scrappy.

In this show, one also feels short-changed by the fact that Campbell falls back on his favourite topic, pidgin English. In spite of the panoramic breadth his title suggests, he seems stuck in a rut.

Meanwhile, at The Other Place in Stratford, the RSC is conducting a sweeping survey of the past and future in a revival of Back To Methuselah.

Written soon after the First World War, George Bernard Shaw's intellectual and satirical sci-fi saga about the possibilities of progressive evolution kicks off in Eden. Here, our innocents, Adam and Eve, encounter death for the first time and tune into the whisperings of the Serpent.

Then we land in Hampstead in 1921 where two biologists are debating the merits of extending human life to 300 years. This is in the company of a snoozing parson and two politicians whose horizons are limited to winning the next election and flirting with ladies half their age. Come 2170 AD, some of the assembled company are miraculously still going strong. By 3000 AD, Ireland has been colonised by an alarmingly cold-blooded super race and so on.

For spectators not blessed with immortality, this piece of work may seem to last a lifetime, even when director David Fielding's abridged version condenses 35 millennia into four-and-a-quarter hours.

We get off to a wobbly start in Eden with Tim Treloar's Adam and Caroline Harris's Eve cavorting around in babygrow outfits. Shaw's sexually stereotyped comic sketch looks embarrassingly rudimentary.

Fielding's attempt to jazz up the Serpent's is also technically heavy-handed with Janet Whiteside hissing key words like "immortality" into an echoing microphone.

Often too, Shaw is more of a didactic ventriloquist than a true dramatist. Eve might as well climb on a soap box to deliver her speech against war.

But there are some irresistibly funny cod-futuristic moments, not least Julian Curry transmogrified into a 31st-century sage, with an elongated brain and a skimpy toga.

More seriously the majority of the cast engage vigorously with moral arguments. Shaw's vision of racial supremacism foreshadows the Holocaust, and Fielding - framing the action in a white lab environment - clearly emphasises how current developments in genetic engineering make GBS's debate on longevity and scientific ethics relevant now.

Finally, over the road in the main house, the RSC's impressive progress through all Shakespeare's history plays continues with a fine Henry V. Here two young talents have come to the fore.

William Houston - who was a worryingly chilly Prince Hal in Henry IV Part II - evolves into an admirable soldier-king, not with rhetorical bombast but with psychological complexity.

Initially, his newly-crowned Harry does seem trapped in a rigidly frosty mode. Yet once besmirched and sweating on the dark and foggy battlefield, he reveals potently feral and vulnerable aspects.

His "Once more unto the breach" speech is barked out with vulpine savagery. Therein one detects his previously marked filial bitterness re-channelled into international combat, and his useful addiction to Eastcheap's rough boozers is glimpsed again in this royal urge to brawl.

Further into the campaign, he becomes winningly heroic. Badly shaken by his incognito night amongst his unhappy troops, he only just manages to rally, delivering his St Crispin's Day call to arms with near-desperate determination.

The other young buck proving his mettle in this production is director Edward Hall (son of Sir Peter). True, there are a few awkward moments including Henry's last-minute transition from warrior to wooer. Catherine Walker's Gallic princess has a worse French accent than her cross-channel suitor.

Nonetheless, Hall's battle scenes are boldly stylised with surprisingly disturbing blows being administered to punchbags. Overall, he steers a dextrous course, managing to avoid crudely vaunting nationalism whilst declining to reduce Henry V's oratory to mere spin doctoring. Hall's updating of Harry's infantry to boisterous lager louts who set off to war singing football anthems (commissioned from Billy Bragg) also effortlessly bridges the centuries.

' History of Comedy': RNT, SE1 (020 7452 3000), 7-9 September; 'Back To Methuselah': The Other Place, and 'Henry V', RST, Stratford (both 01789 403403), until 7 October

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