Play: Owen Thomas
Director: Gareth John Bale
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
Benny Hill has always been an enigma. Comedian, writer and make no mistake, astute businessman, his was, like the Biblical Joseph, a coat of many colours. His show was looked forward to by millions all over the world, and went out on Saturday nights, first of all on BBC TV and then on Thames Television on ITV. In the late Seventies and early Eighties he was mega popular and successful, then fell out of favour big time. Ostracised and persona non grata in the UK, his show was still being seen by some 200 countries around the world, some of which still air it today, 25 years after his death from kidney failure at the comparatively young age of 68.
Intrigued by Hill’s many complexities, playwright Owen Thomas has delved behind the jovial façade which Hill presented to the world via the Box and set himself the task of peeling back the layers. The result is Benny, a multifaceted one man show which, while in addition to telling the story of the background of this very private man, endeavours to answer some of the questions that arose over his private life, centring on the sexism and gender-related issues slung at him by his accusers and given fuel by the presence of the Hill’s Angels – a troupe of scantily-clad young beauties – in his show.
That Owen succeeds in just over an hour in giving his audience a perceptive glimpse of Hill the man is no mean accomplishment, given that Hill rarely gave interviews, keeping his private life under wraps as much as possible. Nevertheless, some details were known – such as his self-questioning and frugality – the latter hardly necessary, given his high earnings.
Liam Tobin as Benny gives a perceptive and funny performance which makes the most of the small stage. Ruth Hall’s set is well thought out and ticks the boxes in every detail, with walls of the comedian’s flat papered in a design that was much in vogue at the time when Hill was alive, and the potted plant that was a must. Hall’s set is completely in tune with the era and contributes much to the overall feel of the piece, as does the music, with pianist Tom Breeze tackling the memorable and fast-paced tunes with expertise.
While there is still work to be done – in particular relating to the chronology which at times is jumpy and uneven, making it difficult to follow – this is a well-researched and thought out piece of theatre about a man who made Saturday nights occasions to look forward to long before Strictly and Love Island.
Does it answer any of the questions about Benny? Maybe – and maybe not. You need to see the play to find out!
Runs until Saturday 9 September 2017 | Image: Contributed