David Benson appears to have something of a hit on his hands with "Think No Evil of Us - My Life with Kenneth Williams". The play, which is currently half way through a nationwide tour, was the recipient of a 1996 Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Festival, and has gone on to win unanimous acclaim from the press and theatregoers alike.
Nevertheless, I approached the play with no small measure of trepidation. I've been a fan of Kenneth Williams for as long as I can remember, and wasn't sure that I wanted my illusions (well, whatever illusions I had left after reading such tomes as the Diaries and Letters) shattered by one man's very subjective view of the great comedian.
Benson's fascination with Williams stems from a writing competition he won at age 13. The prize was to have his composition read out on Jackanory by Kenneth Williams. Benson, who disliked Williams intensely due to his overt campness, was mortified and spent the next few years enduring the ridicule and cries of "Ooh, duckie!" from his schoolmates. However, his dislike for the comedian has since transformed into a deep fascination, and this one-man-show is an attempt to crystallize a number of factors in Benson's life; his fascination with Williams, Williams' own tortured soul, and Benson's own childhood and adolescence.
The play, itself, is a dizzying mixture of impersonations, anecdotes and soul-searching. For the most part Benson plays Williams, following the actor through a series of imaginary situations. Starting out at a poetry reading and finishing on the night of Williams' tragic death, Benson is Kenneth Williams; the performance is astounding. Every contortion, every vocal inflection and physical gesture is pure Williams; and the stories and anecdotes themselves are told exactly as we've seen Kenny do them - it's quite an unnerving experience.
Benson follows Williams through a number of situations; a poetry reading, meeting his sister's boyfriend, and a hilarious dinner with friends; the performance is faultless. The Kenneth Williams segment comes to a head about 20 minutes into the show following a row with Williams' mother, Louisa. Kenneth launches into one of his notorious mood swings, crying out in despair that he might as well end it all - a vicious attack on life, his friends and above all, his fans. At this point, Benson slips seamlessly out of character, telling Williams to shut up and get a grip. This point in the play works exceptionally well; we've all read Williams whingeing about how nobody loved him and that his talents were never appreciated, so to finally see someone give him a piece of their mind is most refreshing. Benson berates the actor for not realizing just how lucky he is, how everybody loves him; he is one of the most respected entertainers in the country. Williams, however, refuses to accept the criticism and departs the stage.
This leaves Benson alone (and himself; remember, this is a one man show). He then launches into the most emotional section of the piece. He starts by describing how he came to be fascinated by Williams, leading us along on a very personal train of thought. Along the way, we are introduced to his headmaster, his mother, the cast of Dad's Army and a host of other characters who have helped to shape the actor we saw before us. At times hysterically funny (especially the headmaster segment, which had more than a few members of the audience quivering in their seats!), the performance spans every emotion; the part where Benson describes his mother's illness, confinement and eventual reconciliation, is especially moving, and one gets the impression his relationship with his mother is really the major driving force behind the play.
Williams eventually "returns" to the stage for the final segment; a wonderfully over-the-top dinner; he is at a restaurant with three friends, ostensibly enjoying a "quiet" meal. Predictably enough, he soon feels he's not getting enough attention and grows progressively more outrageous, flirting with the staff, abusing fellow diners and ultimately storming out of the restaurant in a blaze of anger and frustration, doubled up in agony as "the old trouble" returns. He rushes home, into his flat and takes a handful of painkillers, then another handful…..
The rest is history; or Benson's version of it at least. My only quibble with the entire play is that Benson portrays Williams' death as suicide (an opinion myself and indeed the coroner investigating the death were opposed to; an open verdict was recorded at the inquest). Other than this it is a stunning portrayal, not only of a great comic actor, but also of Benson's own struggle with his life, his sexuality, and above all his family. Benson is bursting with energy and enthusiasm for his subject; the whole process is obviously some kind of catharsis for Benson, and at times I felt rather uncomfortable; as if I was privy to something I really would rather not see. Ultimately, though, it is a very positive, uplifting show - the audience came away not just with a better understanding of the nature of Kenneth Williams, but also an intimate knowledge of Mr Benson, himself. Benson stated in a recent radio interview that his original intention for the play was to open himself up to the audience, to let them know who he is and why he's doing this; in this respect he succeeds admirably; Think No Evil of Us is a stunning piece of theatre and is essential viewing, not only for fans of the immortal Kenneth Williams (although I suspect it is the great man who draws many to the show), but also anyone who wants a deeper understanding of human nature.