Theatre: Violin Time Cottesloe, London

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The Independent Culture
At the beginning of Violin Time, Ken Campbell describes the meeting with Richard Eyre at which this latest instalment in what he calls his "endeavour to get Western civilisation back on track" was commissioned: Eyre's diagnosis is that Campbell is suffering from famation of character - having won an Evening Standard award and been hailed as a genius for his previous rambling excursions into esoterica, he cannot possibly live up to his reputation. Soon, Eyre warns, Campbell's band of followers, never large, will have dwindled to a few people coming to watch the spectacle of his decline.

There is, happily, some way to go before that happens. Violin Time picks up and extends some of the themes present in The Bald Trilogy and last year's follow-up, Mystery Bruises - in particular, the meaningfulness of apparent coincidence - and adds a new bunch of concerns. This "half- arsed 20th-century Tristram Shandy" starts out as a twin journey: Campbell's new on-stage partner, a Vietnamese violinist called Thieu-Hoa Vuong, is to travel to Campbell's spiritual home, St John's, Newfoundland. (Her first name, incidentally, is pronounced as "the question to which the answer might be `Coffee - Tea or wha' ?' ") Meanwhile, he is supposed to visit her home town, Haiphong in north Vietnam, although for various reasons he ends up in the south of France instead.

Within the framework of this spurious travelogue, Campbell manages to introduce discussions of the orificular theory of audience distraction (the best actors know how to vicariously relieve an audience's itches by subliminal wriggling and scratching -- Campbell claims to have seen Sir Ian McKellen hold an audience in the palm of his hand by backing up against the corner of a table); the admissibility or otherwise of the testimony of tomatoes, adduced through polygraph readings; the mysteries of the sphincter (could you hold a mixture of solids, liquid and gas in your hand, and then open it to release only the gas? Your bottom can; moreover it knows when you are in company and when you are alone); and the revival of Catharism. It's a virtuoso demonstration of the art of digression; but a digression needs to be a digression away from something - every shaggy dog story needs to be heading towards some sort of punchline, even if, as with Tristram Shandy, the point of the tale turns out to be no more than a cock and a bull.

Campbell's punchlines are always elusive; in Violin Time, the pay-off seems to have escaped him altogether. Because there is no proper finishing point, the show lacks a sense of direction, and there are some quite long patches where you begin to see Richard Eyre's point - the show lasts around two and a half hours, and could easily afford to lose a quarter of that.

But you can still see why Campbell gets labelled a genius - his description of "est" sessions (where seekers after self-improvement are asked questions like "Shall we dance with the listening in the conversations for possibility?") is a brilliant, killingly funny demolition job. He's not done for yet.

n To 2 Nov. 0171-928 2252

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