Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The real Benny Hill?

Benny

Gareth John Bale , Chapter , September-06-17
Benny  by Gareth John Bale Last night I and a capacity Chapter audience met the ‘real’ off screen Benny Hill. A sensitive intelligent man, with a penchant for carrier bags and tinned food. The show opened with a few moments of his well known, cheeky mime that got us all smiling and laughing immediately.

It soon became clear that as a young man there was within him that compulsion, pushing him to inevitably become an entertainer. Both his grandfather and his father were in ‘show business’. They were circus performers. His father surprised the young Benny one day by walking up the stairs, on his hands!

We were taken through his early days as he continued to fail as a stage entertainer, his discovery of himself as ready-made entertainer in the rising new medium of television and on to his remarkable worldwide success there. Followed by the sudden ending of that fame and his lonely, early death at the age of 68 in 1992. All this on a remarkable set by Ruth Hall, a giant, detailed television set that was the whole stage and contained Hill’s sparse living room, with his armchair and TV set.

But we were getting much more than Benny Hill. We were getting an absolutely outstanding, warm and totally captivating performance from consummate actor Liam Tobin. This is a man whose home is the stage; with a desire to welcome us into that home and thoroughly entertain us. Actor, singer, impressionist, he gave us the real Benny Hill and much more.

There was here an essential rapport between the creative team, writer Owen Thomas, director Gareth John Bale and actor, Tobin. Previously Thomas had given us a well-researched play on the life of Welsh International rugby player Ray Gravell with Gareth John Bale dong a great job bringing ‘Grav’ to life. He had researched equally diligently for this script having spoken to people who had known and worked with Benny Hill. DH Taylor put some fine AV work on to the small on-stage television set including one of Hill’s famous ‘chase’ scenes which spread across the whole of the stage as the delightful evening came to a close.

Oh we suffered with Benny as he toured the ‘halls’ so unsuccessfully in his early days. Like most comedians, he was booed off the stage at London’s well-known Windmill Theatre by men in raincoats who were only there to see the girls! But as Tobin, so movingly recreated the stony, slow hand clapping audience at the Sunderland Empire, we shared his pain.

But there were much better things to come. Something had clicked in Hill’s head that his determination to entertain would fare much better on television. He worked hard on his preparations. With a carrier bag full of ideas he went knocking on the door on the BBC and was welcomed inside.

He became a big hit at the BBC and then at Thames Television. At his height his shows were being watched by over 20 million viewers. Then it all ended quite suddenly – times were changing. Today there appears objections to the work of Benny Hill from what I maintain are up-tight quarters. Accusing him of misogyny and sexism. There were objections to the staging of this show. Thank goodness they were resisted and Tobin was able to say goodnight to us with a salute and a delightful rendering of Hill’s double entendre songs. This is a show well worth seeing and Benny Hill a comic well worth remembering.

6-9 Sept.

Image by Kirsten McTernan

Reviewed by: Michael Kelligan

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