BREVIEW: Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams @ The Old Joint Stock Theatre 26.09.17

Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams @ The Old Joint Stock Theatre 26.09.17

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!”

Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams @ The Old Joint Stock Theatre 26.09.17The 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.

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BPREVIEW: Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams @ The Old Joint Stock Theatre, 26-27.09.17

BPREVIEW: Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams @ The Old Joint Stock Theatre, 26-27.09.17

Words by Helen Knott

Running for two nights at The Old Joint Stock Theatre, Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams comes to Birmingham  from 26th to 27th September. 

Doors open at 7:30pm on both nights, with tickets priced at £12. For direct event info, including venue details and online ticket sales, click here.

If someone mentions Kenneth Williams your first thoughts are most likely: Carry On films, double entendres, camp mannerisms. But that is only one side of Williams. He was also subversive, complex, and for his time, at least, cutting-edge.

Take Round The Horne, a popular BBC radio comedy. It attracted weekly audiences of 15 million listeners in the sixties and Williams was part of its regular line-up. Back then being gay was still illegal, so much of the show’s innuendo involved Williams’ use of Polari – the slang that gay men used to communicate. The BBC censors seemingly didn’t understand it and consequently quite outrageous stuff, even by today’s standards, got broadcast into millions of people’s living rooms.

Though popular and fondly regarded during his lifetime, Williams’ posthumously published diaries suggest that off air he was troubled.BPREVIEW: Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams @ The Old Joint Stock Theatre, 26-27.09.17 According to his memoirs, Williams suffered from depression and found it hard to come to terms with his homosexuality. He eventually died in 1988 of a drug overdose.

So, Williams lived a rich and varied life, leaving plenty to explore in Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams. Colin Elmer, who has appeared as Williams before in a production celebrating the 50th anniversary of Round the Horne, wrote and performs the one man show – once again with Tim Astley directing.

We are told Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams tells Williams’ story in his own words, and judging by some of his diary extracts this is a good shout: ‘Had Sid, Hattie, Joan, Barbara, Bernard and Charlie around for dinner. They were all perfectly awful except for Barbara whom I love more than anything else in the world, and even she is a stupid cunt’.

Colin Elmer has been a fan of Williams since he was a boy, so I’m expecting Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams to be more of a thoughtful and nuanced representation of an enigmatic entertainer, rather than a catchphrase-laden caricature. But it will be interesting to see if Elmer manages to bring anything new to our appreciation of Williams, or if it will simply be a nostalgic look back at one of British comedy’s greats.

Watch an interview with Colin Elmer where he discusses Kenneth Williams, as part of the promotion for the previous 50th anniversary of Round the Horne production:

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