David Benson's semi-autobiographical one-man show about Carry On legend Kenneth Williams was first performed to great success at 1996's Edinburgh Fringe, after which it transferred to the West End and then toured the country. Benson revived the show for its tenth anniversary, and has done so again for its twentieth.
There's no denying Kenneth Williams was a strange man. But that's not intended as a slight, because in this case, strange means peculiar, odd, unusual. Unique. And that uniqueness means it's very difficult for anybody to fully capture Williams's indelible presence and character. Many have tried, including Olivier Award nominee Adam Godley and the crown prince of celebrity impersonators, Michael Sheen.
But before them came David Benson, and he always came the closest to bottling Williams's extraordinary character. In 1996, Think No Evil of Us: My Life with Kenneth Williams was a sensation principally because of Benson's uncanny impersonation, both physically and vocally. He became the 'go-to' guy for anybody needing a dash of Kenneth Williams.
So does the show have the same impact two decades later? Arguably not. When Think No Evil of Us premiered, Kenneth Williams had been dead just eight years. His memory was fresh, and despite his controversial diaries being published in 1993, the tragedy of his private life was still largely unexplored. The anniversary revivals of the show are welcome exercises in nostalgia, because sadly the magic has diminished through sheer over-familiarity with the Williams story.
Benson's voice is gruffer, although Williams's vocal dexterity is still spot on, and he looks much more like David Benson than Kenneth Williams nowadays; that uncanny resemblance has lessened with time.
When Benson is Williams, the audience is happy. It's almost like the man himself is back in the room. It's a safe, familiar and highly amusing routine to watch. The sketch set in the Italian restaurant is a masterful interpretation of what dining with Williams must have been like. You're there in the restaurant with him, you can see the food, and feel the awkwardness he provokes. This is Benson at his Williams-esque height.
But when Benson is Benson, that's when things get more interesting. He comes over as a thoroughly nice, genial man who recounts anecdotes from his own childhood with warmth and sincerity. He tells us about being brought up by a mother who clearly had mental health issues, and Benson's depiction of her is brutally honest. The audience knows there's something amiss with his mother, but Benson does not address this until much later in the play. It's good that he revisits it, and when he does, teary-eyed, it tempers the uneasiness of watching his earlier portrayal.
Kenneth Williams was a supremely complex personality. He had no love for himself, and little for others, bar a select few. He was pompous and self-important just as much as he was loveable and generous. He was frighteningly quick-witted, eloquent and barbed. There were many facets to Kenneth Williams, and Benson depicts some of them here - the poetry-loving raconteur, the frustrated carer (for his mother Louie), the outrageous flirt, the unpleasant show-off who takes things too far.
But Benson doesn't quite manage to stitch these depictions together into a cohesive whole, and the linking thread of the Jackanory story being read on TV by Williams is made much of, then gets somehow lost. Structurally, it's a little untidy, but the journey through this landscape of unhinged, over-the-top and downright funny characters is a joy.
In a touching coda, after showing Williams overdosing and dying alone in his flat, Benson admits that he misses Kenneth Williams. He could still be alive today, an aged vestige of a bygone era, sitting on Graham Norton's sofa alongside Hollywood's glitterati and telling tales of Bertrand Russell, T S Eliot and cab drivers.
And when Benson asks the audience if they miss Kenneth Williams too, something magical happens. There's a very definite, unanimous yes.
So maybe that's why, 20 years after Think No Evil of Us premiered, there's still an appetite for this delightful show, and a strange fascination with a man who can never be replaced.
Writer, director and performer: David Benson
Performed at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, May 26 to 28, 2016. Performance reviewed: May 26, 2016
Think No Evil of Us on Theatr Clwyd website (retrieved May 27 2016)
Think No Evil of Us on Seabright Productions website (retrieved May 27 2016)
Video of David Benson on Edinburgh Nights, August 1996 (retrieved May 27 2016)
Oh, what's the bloody point...?