Words by Helen Knott
What does it mean to be a cult figure? Is it simply someone who is popular with a loyal, but limited, group of people, or does it have connotations of an almost unhealthy devotion?
Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams feels like the work of a fan, someone with a real reverence for Kenneth Williams. Painstakingly pieced together from diary entries, personal letters and radio performances, writer and performer Colin Elmer successfully captures the spirit of Williams’ singular persona. The piece is funny, fast-paced and enjoyable. This is particularly true in a first half that focuses on Williams’ early life as a child living above his father’s hairdressers and his stint in the forces during World War II.
The stories about Williams’ war years provided real insights into the life of a soldier and the work of the Combined Forces Entertainment, the group that travelled around, providing entertainment for the troops. Indeed, Williams lived through a fascinating era of history, and I would have enjoyed more exploration of the context that he was living and working in. Issues such as the illegality of homosexuality for much of Williams’ life undoubtedly impacted him and his work, but were barely touched upon.
Elmer instead focused on performing numerous extracts from Williams’ radio career, using skits from Hancock’s Half Hour, Round the Horne and Just a Minute to trace his evolution from a bit part actor, to an innovative comedian, to a TV and radio personality. This generally worked well and allowed Elmer’s real strength – that is, his well-observed impersonation of Williams – to take centre stage. Elmer’s voice, subtle mannerisms and easy charm resulted in a number audience members commenting in the interval: “I think it’s really him!”
The second half of the show was largely structured in a chat show format, with Elmer feeding audience members pre-prepared questions. This felt a little forced; just a device to allow Elmer to cover some big moments in Williams’ life, including celebrity-themed anecdotes and oddly, the Carry On films (which were rather rushed over, considering that they’re probably Williams’ best known work).
It didn’t help that Elmer was occasionally tripping over his very detailed, very precise script. This section may have worked better if it actually gave The Old Joint Stock audience the opportunity to ask their own questions. They were clearly a knowledgeable bunch and it would have freshened things up to see Elmer thinking on his feet.
Ultimately, the show felt rather one-dimensional. There was no sense of the darkness that haunted Williams, eventually leading him to die from an overdose. Williams’ mother, who he had a close relationship with throughout his life (she even lived next door), was strangely absent. Big and complex questions about Williams’ private life and professional legacy were untouched.
Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams clearly didn’t have ambitions above providing a nostalgic and fun reproduction of the best bits of Williams’ career for the comedian’s devoted following. It certainly succeeded in this: the production comes from a place of great affection and is beautifully performed, but it’s not going to win the cult figure Kenneth Williams any new fans.
For more on Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams, visit www.oldjointstock.co.uk/whats-on/cult-figure
For more from Old Joint Stock Theatre, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.oldjointstock.co.uk