Theatre review: Whatever Happened to Benny Hill?
THERE'S, something cooking in Grant Smeaton's clever and thoughtful new 70-minute show about the remarkable life and slow showbiz death of Benny Hill, but it's difficult to resist the impression that although all the ingredients have been mixed in, the show isn't quite ready, yet, to be served up to the public.
Performed by a team of just three actors – Smeaton himself as Benny, with Richard McLean as all the other men, and Karen Fraser Docherty as a dazzling range of women – the show takes the form of a fragmentary series of sketch-like scenes, starting from the devastating moment, in 1988, when Thames Television cancelled Benny's regularly weekly show, and then weaving backwards and forwards through key turning-points in his career, up to his sad death in 1992. And the show has some powerful assets, both in its clever visual and video design – which perfectly captures the decor, atmosphere, and television style of Britain in the postwar period, all projected on a screen behind the action – and in the quality of the performances, not least Smeaton's uncanny representation of Hill himself.
Yet for all its haunting alternations between the cheeky, seaside-postcard energy of the comic scenes, and the bleak shapelessness of Hill's private life, this seems, in the end, a little unsure of what it wants to say. On one hand, it wants to celebrate Hill as a neglected and mistreated comic genius. On the other, it seems partly convinced by the idea that Hill's comedy was the sad product of an age of repression and a problematic mother-son relationship, best consigned to the past; and it needs to find a more shapely and purposeful way of expressing that tension, if it's to do full justice to the quality of its own material.