Benny Hill was already dead for two days when his body was finally discovered, slumped in an armchair in front of the very object that gave him a life: the television. After a lifetime under the spotlight, he died alone and forgotten. In his pomp, Benny Hill was the odd-looking man on television, chasing scantily clad women around the English countryside. The Benny Hill Show was unmissable, making Hill one of the most popular celebrities of his time. A fact that, in this solo show, he does not let you forget. From his difficult childhood to early career setbacks, from superstardom to obscurity, Owen Thomas’ play takes us right to the end.
Benny is the latest in Thomas’ series of biopics, having already tackled the life of Ray Gravell. Tonally, however, this sits closest to Davie Ainsworth‘s play about the life of Charles Hawtrey. Hill and Hawtrey were both much-loved personalities plagued by personal demons and unable to keep up with a changing world. Hill isn’t as vicious as Hawtrey, though. Liam Tobin’s portrayal is far softer; there isn’t as much bitterness. Hill understands where he faltered, but doesn’t understand why he’s treated the way he is because of it.
With a charm to his smile and a mischief in his eyes, Liam Tobin is easy to like. For the most part it’s a deliberately restrained performance, but the audience expect a breaking point that never comes. Thomas’ script doesn’t kick up those extra gears at the end, and the play teeters to a close at very much the same pace it began. It’s also crucial to note that the show’s biggest laughs come when Hill is ‘in character’, either performing some of his own routines or those of his contemporaries. Tobin is a superb impressionist (his Bob Monkhouse is a particular highlight) but it’s telling that, in a play meant to document the real Benny Hill, its these vignettes that receive the largest audience response. Nostalgia is unavoidable, of course, and there is no shame in that. It’s fair to presume that audiences will be wanting that trip down memory lane, but it’s also fair to expect that they should come away with more than a reminder of the hits. Because there isn’t that final crescendo, nostalgia wins out. It’s a missed opportunity.
Thomas’ script does offer opportunities to experiment a little, and Gareth John Bale directs it all with a sure hand. The use of video throughout the show is cleverly done, but it’s the simplicity of a bright spotlight that is most effective. With just the kitsch seventies wallpaper and matching ugly armchair, Bale places the audience immediately in Hill’s world. It’s the perfect example of the director showing as much restraint as his actor.
Benny is an enjoyable way to spend an hour, but it just isn’t as funny or as moving as it has the potential to be. If you’ve ever watched Howerd, Morecambe or Hill himself, you will definitely appreciate this pleasant trip down memory lane, but you may not feel any different about him after the fact.
Benny is at the Gilded Balloon until August 27th.