Writer: David Benson
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
From Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd to Boris Johnson and most of the cast of Dad’s Army, David Benson has played some of the UK’s greatest clowns over more than two decades of Edinburgh Fringe productions. But he has proven he can take a more serious look at the world too, and this hour-long sojourn through a little-known political plot which made headlines in the late Georgian period is a classic example of Benson at his best.
There is perhaps no more apposite time to take us back to 1820, when Britain was a powder keg of civil unrest and social revolution was in the air. Benson broadly leaves the contemporary parallels for his audience to find for themselves, but it’s not hard to understand why a plot to kill members of the cabinet of the UK government has resonance.
Taking as his basis the eye-witness accounts, records from the incident, and in particular the period songs, Benson details how five men were publicly executed in a brutal example of suppression by those in the upper echelons of the British government. From just a few court sketches and their last recorded statements and letters, Benson brings life to these men, and takes us through their final days.
There is a huge amount of history packaged neatly for us, deftly punctuated with dry asides, as the Cato Street plot unfolds. Finding echoes of rebellion from right across history, Benson references the American Revolution, the Peterloo Massacre, and instances of insurrection from Roman times, and if there’s insufficient dramatic focus on the grand reveal of why this particular plot failed, it’s not hard to catch the plea for action against those who exploit public apathy to push forward unpopular agendas.
There’s wit, wisdom and emotion in this tale of fatal ambition, and whilst we’ve moved on from public executions and the gory spectacle of beheading corpses for entertainment, so many other elements of the story seem not so different at all.
Runs until 18 August 2019 (not 12) | Image: Contributed