I wasn’t quite 1 year old when Kenneth Williams, one of Britain’s most celebrated comedians, died – possibly at his own hand – so I never saw him perform live, but I know about his work from the odd Carry On film, and from the amazing Michael Sheen drama about his life (Fantabulosa) that came out 10 years ago. So, when I caught a chance mention on Twitter of a one-man show about him at the King’s Head in Islington, I was intrigued.
I booked my ticket a few minutes before leaving work and had a bit of a stressful journey (slightly touch and go as to whether I’d get there in time!) but arrived at the theatre, puffing and gasping, three minutes before the start. Phew!
The King’s Head is a little fringe theatre at the back of a pub of the same name, and the ‘black box’ set, furnished only with a chair, suited the one-man show well. The small space was rather hot, but the seating arrangement is good – there wasn’t really a bad seat in the house, particularly as Dave Benson, portraying Williams, paced around the space addressing all directions. It might be different for other shows, but I did wonder why people would pay more for the ‘premium’ seats that were advertised!
The show, Think No Evil On Us, is partly about Kenneth Williams’ life, with Benson unleashing a breathtaking impression of the comic, and partly relating to aspects of Benson’s own extraordinary childhood and a chance connection with Williams. I was one of the youngest in the audience – most of those there were old enough to remember Williams – and watching their reactions was fascinating. They roared with appreciation as Benson launched into his performance, completely inhabiting the character.
It’s no surprise that this is such a well-honed show; it’s a production 20 years in the making, having premiered at the 1996 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and later played in the West End and toured the country. And sure enough, Benson’s portrayal of Kenneth Williams is really very accomplished. At first glance he doesn’t look all that much like the comic physically, but he has the body language spot on – and as soon as he contorted his face to mimic Williams’ more grotesque grimaces, it’s like the comedian is in the room.
Benson is an astonishing impressionist. Other famous figures make fleeting appearances – Frankie Howerd, the whole cast of Dad’s Army – but his Kenneth Williams is really arresting. It’s a transformative performance, whether portraying the comic’s prissy, disapproving haughtiness, or his explosions into a flailing ball of shrieking, hyperactive energy, or in rare moments or poignant clarity.
The audience was spellbound – Benson soon had us singing and interacting with him. Alternating between gut-achingly funny, squirm-inducingly uncomfortable, and genuinely touching, it’s not a happy story but it’s an extremely entertaining night out.
More information about the show: http://www.seabrights.com/davidbenson/