Chapter Arts Centre
6 September 2017
WORDS: Emma Hall and Tom Bevan
Before heading out to see ‘Benny’ at Chapter Arts Centre, neither of us knew much beyond a quick google search about its central character Benny Hill. Despite a sometimes tentative engagement with the controversy surrounding the late comedian, Owen Thomas’ new play succeeded in educating and entertaining two naïve millennials.
Having brought back to life Ray Gravell in ‘Grav’ Owen Thomas revealed in the Q&A that he wanted to take on a more “marmite” figure by imagining the reflections of Benny Hill at the end of his life; dying alone after his incredibly successful career turned sour. Ridiculed for his sexist, racist and dated comedic style and for a famously frugal lifestyle uncharacteristic of a multi-millionaire Hill’s legacy is one shrouded in controversy. The play treads a difficult line between exploring the successes of the star, the motivations of the man and understanding his image today as a largely forgotten global celebrity.
The script is rich and rhythmic, allowing Liam Tobin space to switch between story-telling, skits, and impersonation of other comedians du jour. Impeccably researched, despite the infamous lack of interview material available, the reclusive Hill comes alive in front of us inside his 70s front room, itself inside a large TV set which frames the stage. The set design is inventive and authentic, inviting us to view Benny Hill again within his epoch and on his own terms; the use of voiceover, sound effects and recreated clips from the Benny Hill Show, played on the small TV screen, adds extra dramatic texture. These techniques expound the very transition between theatre and television which Benny himself capitalised on in his early career.
The script is rich and rhythmic, allowing Liam Tobin space to switch between story-telling, skits, and impersonation of other comedians du jour.
Whilst the production is funny and engaging (even for non Benny Hill fans), it is unclear quite what Thomas is attempting to say by reanimating a figure whose work inspired so much criticism. The roundness of the character created onstage at times contributes to an overly forgiving and apologist perspective, despite the authors best intent. Regardless of elements of the script that fall short of a truly critical assessment of a man who made millions at the expense of on screen respect for women, Liam Tobin pulls off this marathon one man show in a stellar performance. His comedic timing sustains interest throughout the piece and the rapport kept with the audience demonstrates a comedic flair often found lacking in other actors.
Enjoyable throughout, this is an incredibly polished work in progress that would benefit from some careful reworking to overcome any inadvertent defence of the TV personality that almost inevitably arises from the intimate research needed for biographical theatre. This play is surely destined for life on the road and would be a hit at the Fringe, especially for those who are already familiar with the forgotten Benny.
Benny is currently playing at Chapter Arts Centre until the 9th of September – book your tickets here.
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