Ooh, matron, you mustn't miss this carry on

Charles Spencer enjoys Think No Evil of Us: My Life with Kenneth Williams at the Vaudeville
First Published in The Telegraph on 28 February 1998

David Benson's wonderful one-man show has finally - and deservedly - made it into the West End, where it opens tonight. A huge hit two years running at the Edinburgh Festival, this will be its last ever season, and if you've missed it so far, I can't recommend it too highly. Benson has come up with a rare show that is as endearing as it is funny. It is also in its own way remarkably original.

The piece begins with the best imitation of Kenneth Williams you are ever likely to see. Benson perfectly captures the prissy pursed mouth, the look of outrage, the quavering crescendos of nasal indignation. The jokes and smutty double entendres are a joy, and a poignant reminder of just what a fine, distinctive talent we lost when Williams took an overdose of pills in 1988.

But the show is much more than impersonation. It is an act of homage and also a strikingly personal confession. When he was 13, Benson wrote a story for Jackanory, and it was Kenneth Williams who read it out on TV. These facts lead into a blissfully funny description of Benson's schooldays, including assembly under his hilarious Brummie headmaster, and a moving account of Benson's mother's mental illness, which eventually led to her committal.

None of which has much to do with Kenneth Williams, whom it gradually becomes clear Benson never actually met. But Benson's gifts as a mimic are so fine (he casually throws in Frankie Howerd, Maggie Smith and the whole cast of Dad's Army), and his personality so engaging that you remain enthralled throughout.

The final section, in which he reverts to impersonating the comedian, is outstanding. We watch Williams entertaining his friends in a restaurant, and becoming increasingly desperate, especially when discussing his chronic bowel disorder in demented, disgusting detail over the spag bol.

Here you begin to sense Williams's scorching self-hatred, the appalling lovelessness of his life, and this often hilarious piece suddenly achieves a tugging sense of regret and loss. Benson offers a tour de force of impersonation, but his quirky show is also blessed with singular compassion.

This is the last show in young producer Edward Snape's admirable "Live at the Vaudeville" season, and he is now seeking a major sponsor for next year. The West End badly needs a venue for comedy and new variety acts, and I hope he succeeds in raising the cash to establish one on a permanent basis.

The first season has attracted a predominantly young audience, and if I were a marketing man with a "yoof" product to flog, I'd be shoving fistfuls of fivers into Snape's eager hands.


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