Fringe round-up

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The Independent Culture
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Kenneth Williams would, no doubt - were he able - tell David Benson to "bugger off out of it, you silly old queen". As Benson's mimetic tribute to the man, Think No Evil of Us, deliciously reminds us, Williams would forever be upbraiding his fans for their "sickening familiarity". And Benson - an actor whose only claim to Williams's fame is that the latter once read one of his stories on Jackanory - is breathtakingly familiar. There he stands in tweed jacket and grey slacks, mincing, grinning, rolling his Rs and sneering imperiously down his schnozzle in what people would once have said was Ken's own inimitable fashion. It's as though the petulant spirit of this cockney aristocrat has been summoned back to life. Presumably Benson hasn't read the Letters, in which Williams huffily tells an aspiring actor: "Frankly I wouldn't bother with impersonations of me; you will find that the best work comes from being yourself."

Then again, perhaps, alas, he has. In the middle of the evening, the man suddenly switches into being "himself". Coming after a sequence that would knock Rory Bremner off his pedestal at 50 paces, this is inevitably reminiscent of Mike Yarwood's cringemaking "and this is me" signoff. We are told about Benson's mad, fork-throwing mother; his boyhood escape into comic personae; his homosexual awakening in the school showers and his related anxiety about having someone as camp as Williams read his scribblings. The justification for all this lies in the epilogue, which suggests that if only Williams had loved himself a bit more, he might not have killed himself. But if Williams had undergone the kind of self- healing ritual that his imitator performs here, he wouldn't have been worth commemorating.

It's in capturing the comedian's complex self-hatred that Benson rises from self-indulgence into pathos. Williams's erudition caused him to despise an audience that worshipped his every innuendo. But he had no other role to play. This is brilliantly suggested by one of the later scenes in which the haemorrhoidally anecdotal Kenneth ("ooh... you never heard such a noise") mercilessly cuts down his guests at an Italian restaurant. Benson shows him as at once terrifying and - because we see him alone, conducting a one-sided conversation with invisible others - shockingly pathetic.

Jade TC could have done with a piece of Williams's advice: "Never start a story, however trivial, without knowing what the punchline is." Grace's story is trivial, and, er, that's its point. Nineties woman has too many choices. On the eve of her 30th birthday, Grace is so busy reminding herself of all the things she has to do, she can't even get dressed: "Learn Russian... pay the Visa bill... get married... listen to classical music... swim the Channel."

This is nicely physicalised: Victoria Worsley's Grace bounds around a bedroom overendowed with cupboards and doors. From these, at regular intervals, leap two men who play magician / repairman, Darcy / Mark Anthony to her hopeless case, and lark around in black gorilla pants. The surrealism is an inspired way of restating Grace's contradictory needs, but with lines like "I'm not saying I'm getting old, I'd just like to run an iron over my face", you wonder why the play doesn't do more to challenge the ageism upon which it is predicated. By the time Grace is rollerskating round to the Tampax ad tune, writer Sarah Woods seems to be coupling consumerist aspiration with individual desire willy-nilly. The piece founders somewhere in the Channel.

Riding Lights' production of The Winter's Tale, however, keeps you watching to the bitter-sweet end. Director Paul Burbridge takes Shakespeare's late play from diplomatic over-wordiness to long, awed silence, via Autolycus's raucous pastoral variety show. Tripling, rather than doubling up is the money-saving concept, and with a cast this good, why not? It helps weld the comedy to the steel base of patriarchal arrogance, and leads us to where Sarah Finch's wronged Hermione sits frozen before Nigel Forde's repentant Leontes, playing her own "dead likeness". It's about as difficult to get right as reincarnating that other much-abused queen, but Finch thaws back to life perfectly. Get your snow-boots on and go take a look.

`Think No Evil of Us', to 8 Dec, King's Head, London N1 (0171-226 1916); `Grace', Old Red Lion, London EC1 (0171-837 7816); `The Winter's Tale', to 30 Nov, Bridewell Theatre, London EC4 (0171-936 3456)

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