THEATRE / 'It's not going to get any better, you know': Chris Lynam's new show was teetering on the verge of chaos. But it needed a final push. Enter Ken Campbell. By Sarah Hemming

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11 November. It's one month before the opening night of Battersea Arts Centre's Christmas show, Beauty and the Beast, and the company has gathered to rehearse. Ken Campbell, the director, submerged beneath a thick overcoat and a hat, is slumped on a sofa. In front of him three performers, one of whom is wearing coconuts over his ears, are singing a cheerful ditty. 'That's the film noir bit,' the one wearing the coconuts says. 'Ah,' Campbell says. 'I'm afraid I didn't quite catch the reference to film noir there. Where was that?'

The company is rehearsing in Up the Creek, Malcolm Hardee's comedy club in south London. It's an unusual place to rehearse a pantomime, but it rapidly becomes clear that this is an unusual panto. For a start, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Beauty and the Beast. In fact, it has very little in the way of plot at all. The show is the creation of Chris Lynam - the wild-eyed comedian best known for his 'banger between the buttocks' stunt - and is described by BAC as 'anarchic comedy', which is probably the best that words can do.

Lynam and his band have given their extravaganza a few trial outings, but for the run at BAC they have called on Campbell to tighten it up. Campbell's brilliantly surreal comic monologues have earned him a cult following (he has just won the 1993 Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy) and with him and Lynam on board, we can expect a wonderful fusion of eccentricities. But first the director has to be introduced to the show.

The song marks the end of Act 1. 'You've got to the interval already, have you?' asks Campbell. 'You can't get much into 40 minutes anymore, can you?' There follows a heady debate about opening Act 2, which mostly revolves around the difficulties of blowing up balloons. Campbell becomes authoritative: 'The secret is to warm them up before you blow.'

After a few more technical notes of this sort, the company rattles through a vast repertoire of quick- change scenes - an underwater ballet, a love scene, a Russian acrobat routine . . . With no discernible plot, even the performers seem confused. 'Did we have three acts on Saturday? I can't remember,' Lynam says. 'It's not going to get any better, you know,' says Campbell, conspiratorially. 'I'm just here so they have someone to talk to.'

17 November. A week later the Up the Creek room is packed with instruments of all shapes and sizes. Most of the performing space is taken up by a huge sousaphone. Campbell has not yet appeared and the band is doing some work on the music for the opening of the show.

Some friction has developed over the use of cardboard boxes. Berny Richards, the percussion man, feels there are too many. 'I'm not being precious about it,' he says. 'But perhaps Kevin could try playing something that resonates in a different way . . .' 'A chicken, a live chicken,' suggests Lynam.

Campbell arrives. 'Well, what have you been doing?' he asks, brightly. 'We've put the audience over there today.' Lynam says, pointing to the far side of the room. 'Well that must have taken you hours,' Campbell says, wickedly.

This week, though, he is in a business-like mode. He rejects the sofa for a table and chair, and takes out a notebook and pen.

The company settles down to some serious work on the opening number. After another bout of ear- splitting music, Lynam launches into a volley of mad, nonsensical poetry. Many directors would take fright. Campbell looks a little bemused.

'Very good,' he says, when they come to a halt. 'Er, I didn't quite know what was going on with the language . . . ' Lynam says: 'It's very obscure poetry.' 'I think it's really good,' says Campbell. 'But what it needs is for you to know what it means, even if no one else does. Do it as if it's in a parallel universe where it makes perfect sense.'

Suddenly Campbell comes into his own. There can be few performers better versed in working with nonsense: his own shows ramble with inspired ingenuity. He and Lynam go through the speech word by word, deciding what each line signifies to the speaker. Lynam delivers the speech again. The words still don't make sense, but the shape has logic - this time there is some method behind the madness.

26 November. Rehearsals have moved to BAC and things are hotting up. Because of the transfer of his own show, Jamais Vu, to the West End (see listings, below), Campbell's life has become very crowded. The Beauty and the Beast cast will lose their director a week before they open. Again this is not the normal run of affairs, but they seem unperturbed. 'We've never really had a director before, so it's been a luxury,' Kate McKenzie says.

'The show has got a very loose feel and we want that feeling of 'anything could happen',' Lynam says. 'But within that we want moments that are very tight. We wanted someone to make sure they are.'

They begin work on one such section, a cod romantic scene between two lovers. Lynam and McKenzie have been playing it in clipped Brief Encounter tones, sitting centre- stage. Campbell opens the scene out, using his experience of classic drawing-room drama. Soon they are sashaying round the stage, fingering soda siphons, plumping cushions and delivering lines with a flourish. It has much more impact.

1 December. Lynam and McKenzie take time off to talk about working with Campbell. 'Ken put it in a nice way,' says McKenzie. 'He said: 'This lot have never had a director, nor do they really want one, but it's like they've decorated the Christmas tree and I've got a few extra baubles'.'

'He made two pages of notes,' Lynam adds. 'One page on the first act, which is incredibly full, and one page on the second act, which just has a drawing of a bunch of onions and the words 'Onions = Crying'. That's the notes for the second act. But we know what it means.'

6 December. The cast and director are doing their get-in. The only unusual thing is that the cast is in one theatre, and the director is in another. Jamais Vu opens at the Vaudeville tonight; Beauty and the Beast opens at BAC tomorrow.

BAC theatre is festooned with hanging ropes and props. 'It looks like a shipyard,' says one technician. Kevin Sargent, the keyboard player, explains the purpose of the ropes: 'One is for a body-painting competition. Chris ends up covering himself in paint and flying into a screen. The other is for a member of the audience: we smash their watch, blindfold them, then hoist them up the rope.' Paul Blackman, artistic director of BAC, talks about his problems explaining the show to old ladies who ring up for a family ticket. On stage, Chris Lynam is fingering an axe. 'Did anybody remember to buy melons?' he asks. There are 24 hours to go.

'Beauty and the Beast' is previewing and opens on Fri at BAC, London SW11 (071-223 2223).

(Photograph omitted)