Whatever Happened to Benny Hill? Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Wednesday 27 July 2011
The tragicomic circumstances of Benny Hill's life and death are familiar to anyone who remembers the comedian, and there's a narrative arc to them which doesn't require undue forcing. From wide-eyed young wannabe variety performer to internationally famous television superstar to unmarried and far out-of-fashion pensioner dying alone in his rented Teddington flat, the glory and the sadness of his life speaks for itself.
This theatrical biography – co-written by and starring Glaswegian actor Grant Smeaton, whose Bette/Cavett earned widespread acclaim at last year's Edinburgh Fringe – takes an unexpected approach, however. It presents Hill's life as a sketch show, a series of out-of-sequence vignettes that throw high farce up against bleak reality. Smeaton, one of Glasgow's finest character actors, is excellent as Hill, recreating every smutty twitch of the eyebrows and smirk on his lips when he's in his onscreen character, but betraying just a hint of melancholy as he jokes his way through life. "I've proposed to three different women," the wheelchair-bound Hill tells a doctor who's warning him how bad his health is. "My heart was bypassed a long time ago."
Support is lent by Richard McLean and Karen Fraser Docherty in a variety of roles, with the latter in particular bringing energetic spirit to a show that requires her to chase Hill/Smeaton around the stage wearing a set of frilly suspenders within its opening minutes. The spirit of Hill's comedy is recreated thoroughly, with Smeaton's performance reminding those who view it as being unfashionable and deeply sexist of the simple skill that lay at its heart. Whether force-feeding McLean powdered potato (the 1970s styles are expertly rendered) during a Fanny Haddock sketch or transforming a bog-standard gag about German accents into something funny for his big break in front of a TV executive, Hill is cast once more as a naturally and genuinely amusing figure.
The fragmentary nature of Smeaton and Raymond Burke's script breaks down the audience's empathy just as it's building, and potentially meaty vignettes about Hill's shyness with woman and his maternal relationship are only touched upon. This is by no means an unsatisfying play, though, thanks mainly to the wonderful performance at its heart.
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