Wild Times

It's a hectic life as David Campbell recreates the wild world of Johnny O'Keefe in the musical Shout!

Welcome to club David. Tiny mirror balls, an inflatable, Astro Boy and a pin board heavy with newspaper clippings decorate a bizarre on-stage creation that the audience never sees. Club David isn't a late night music venue or a sports club, or even a Maryland retreat for American presidents. It's the quick-change room of the star of Shout!: The Legend of the Wild One, the story of Australia's first king of rock'n'roll, Johnny O'Keefe. It's the site of 24 changes a night where clothes are hurriedly discarded, where Campbell quenches his thirst between breaks and has ongoing conversations with his two dressers.

Adelaide-born Campbell is the glue that hold Shout! together; critics and the public say he sings better than the original Wild One himself. His life is locked into the routine necessary to play the tragic O'Keefe eight times a week. It is dominated by eating, working and, when he can find the time, trying to relax.

On this Sunday day, Campbell is up for an 11am Yum Cha breakfast in Chinatown's busy Paddy's Market. "Most times, I'm asleep by 1.30am to 2am. Depending on the next day, I'm up anywhere between 10am and 1pm," he says. "If I can help it, I'll stay in bed."

Campbell knows his way around a Chinese menu - steamed pork buns, prawns, mango pudding, egg tarts. His breakfast tastes change everyday, from cold toast and Vegemite, cereal to eggs, toast and baked beans and coffee, always coffee. The high energy of the musical means this guy needs to eat. "I could eat five times a day, like easy. Not big meals. Little meals for energy. When I don't eat, it's the emergency pizza run at intermission, which is bad for you. I wouldn't encourage it. I have dropped two pants sizes. I can't keep the weight on. I start sweating by the third number."

Since he started playing JOK, in Melbourne in January, Campbell has rarely had a day off. "The lead would normally have an understudy do a show a week," he says. "We tried doing that in Melbourne but I hated it. I'm a control junkie. I sat at home thinking 'Why am I not doing it? I want to do the show."

After breakfast, Campbell heads to Capitol Theatre where Shout! plays it's Sydney season. He is continually greeting cast and crew as he sees them. On this day, most of the cast have been called in to attend a quick rehersal of a scene for an understudy who is taking over from a sick cast member. A bug is going through the company and Campbell is attempting to ward it off by drinking copious amounts of pineapple juice and Chinese cough medicine. He has been on the edge of the flu for four weeks: "It is a hard one. It keeps coming back and I've this cough too. I can't get rid of it."

As the star, Campbell has a spacious dressing room with two small adjoining rooms and a private bathroom. In one corner is an assortment of CD's and an electric and acoustic guitar. His musical tastes are "everything from rock to dance" - Van Morrison, U2, Daft Punk, Radiohead, Aerosmith, Prodigy. Before a performance, he plays "stuff that is good to wind up and scream to".

Adorning the standard mirrors encircled by light globes are cards and notes of encouragement from fans and family, photographs of Campbell as a baby with his mother, and a photograph of his sister. He constantly refers to his family and has been staying with his father - another Australian rock legend Jimmy Barnes - stepmother and two half-sisters and half-brother during Shout's! Sydney season.

"I started performing in high school and that was it," he says. "I do it in my spare time. I do it at dinner and people have to tell me to stop performing and just be myself. I'm like my father. I beat him to his jokes. We think the same way."

Campbell was brought up in Adelaide'snorthern suburbs by his maternal grandmother. He didn't know Barnes was his father until he was 12. "My talent, my drive, I reckon, is genetic... my desire to do this, my need to do this. I always knew I was going to perform," he says, and then corrects himself: "I probably didn't know it. I always hoped I would."

With success as a cabaret singer in New York and Australia, and now the star of a major musical, Campbell attributes it all to hard work. "I think the biggest break was to get over my own insecurities and just do it," he says. "Every now and then, I pull myself up and say 'Stop stressing. You're fine with what you've got'. I keep worrying about the next thing."

For now, he's happy flexing his rock vocal range playing JOK. It's Wednesday and Campbell is performing a matinee and evening show. At 12.30pm, he is in the dressing room. "I'm not trying to impersonate (O'Keefe)," he says. "I'm trying to insinuate him and get an essence of him. To be somebody is much harder that to impersonate him. I try to do vocal inflections like he did but I never try to do anything coming close to an impersonation."

After the show, Campbell is at the stage door to sign autographs for the small, waiting crowd. At a nearby cafe, six more fans emerge from out of nowhere and he is just as happy to sign and have a few words. "You were better than Johnny O'Keefe," they say.

"We were crying our eyes out. It was so touching," one middle-aged woman says.

"You were better than Johnny O'Keefe" says another. "I hope you never try to do drugs like he did, love." Campbell enjoys the attention: "I like meeting people after the show. It's what you do it for. I believe the audience is 50 per cent of the show. (Last night) they were sitting on their hands. I went for it. I trashed the mike, trashed my lungs and they went for it," he says, with the confidence of an entertainer who know how to capture an audience.

After the matinee, Campbell has a rest and dinner with castmate Phillip Haddad, who cooks him steak with mashed potatoes and vegetables. Back in his dressing room before the evening performance, Campbell isn't shy about getting changed in front of a stranger. It is part of the backdrop every night in front of the entire cast and crew. He does a round of JOK-like screeching yells asvocal warmups. Next comes a wig, big-heeled shoes and a fur coat. It is bad-taste '70s kitsch; this musical begins at the sad end of a great rock star's career.

Backstage is a hidden world the audience never gets to see. There are 34 people in the cast, 14 in the touring company and stage management, from dressers, and sound, automation and marketing staff. A further 22 people in each city are needed to run the show. It's surprisingly noisy backstage, as cast chat to crew and actors hurry to their various exits and entrances. Dresser Paul Flanagan says: "I'm amazed how much stomping goes on back here. I think 'Surely the audience can hear this'."

There are more than 300 costumes, requiring 11 dressers to help the actors change in what ranges from seconds to minutes. Flanagan and Lucetta Stapelton almost exclusively dress Campbell. He has 24 changes in the show, three of which don't need both of them to help. Flanagan has made Campbell's onstage quick-change room homely, with newspaper cuttings which feature a lot of in jokes.

When Campbell races offstage for a fast change, Stapelton is pulling clothes off him and Flanagan is puting them on. Campbell is not a method actor who insists on staying in character when he steps offstage. There is an ongoing banter between him and his two dressers. He exits after a fight on stage with his wife, played by Tasmin Carroll. Campbell jokes to his dressers: "She's a bitch." Then laughing, he suggests tomorrow's headlines - "David makes a mockery of the role". Just as quickly as he arrived, he is gone again.

In one part of the show, stage hands hidden by oversized props do situps. During intermission, the cast members walk to the green room for 15 minutes for a chat and to snack on nuts and chips. In the second half, when it is safe to do so, Flanagan and Stapelton play tricks on Campbell, pretending to ignore him or teasing him when he is backstage but not busy changing. How does Campbell compare with other stars? "He's better than a lot," says Flanagan. "But he's no different. He's just someone else. He's a lot of fun to work with. That's one thing about him. Because of the amount of energy he's got to expand on the stage, he likes to keep it up when he's backstage as well. In that sense, he's really fun to work with. He's really professional. He will never do anything which will stop getting out on stage in time. He can play around in the boundaries of the change but he will always be back out there at the right moment."

Campbell's explanation for the banter is: "I need to be distracted because there is so much to do that I will go on stage stressed. If I'm stressed, I'm not in character. I have to stay pretty relaxed the whole time. If I'm stressed, I'm not nearly as good. It's just nice that they care enough to make the effort. I would hate it if they didn't. Then it wouldn't be fun. You can't have that. It has to be fun."

The performance over, Campbell showers and goes to stage door to sign more autographs. Usually after a performance he goes with the cast to a pub for a "packet of crisps and a Diet Coke". But tonight, it's an early night - he's going home to play video games and CD's. "Most nights, I go home and watch TV and try to unwind," he says.

Campbell is still trying to beat his head cold. If he tackles it with the fervour he does everything else, it's bound not to get him down.

Shout! The Legend of the Wild One opens in Adelaide on June 21. David Campbell will also perform at Tuesday's Advertiser Sunday Mail Foundation Famous Faces luncheon at the Hyatt Regency.

Saturday, June 9, 2001