CARRY ON. OR, TO PUT IT ANOTHER WAY, KEEP MESSIN’ ABOUT…
My first concern was, will they dare give us the sadness? Kenneth Williams was a comic marvel self-created, a versatile actor and comedy ham, raconteur , mother’s boy and man in hiding from the terror of love. I. met and interviewed him several times, and he gave me the best of advice possible on my one appearance in a double recording of Just a Minute. Clement Freud, always a man to sow discomfort when he felt like it, was making me edgy. Williams sidled up as we walked towards the stage and said with real kindness “you nervous? Tell you what to do. Just behave really really badly. Like your mother told you not to. Interrupt. Talk rubbish. You’ll be fine”. So I did, and won. I had always loved the Ken I grew up with on Hancock and Round the Horne, and that cemented it.
Later on I learned of his earlier, serious rep career onstage in Chekhov and Shakespeare as well as light comedy, later still read his diaries and his friends’ memories after his lonely death, and sorrowed for the sadness and alienation and closeted despairs; it is sometimes chilling to read how he despised so many of the comedy gigs, especially the talk shows after the acting jobs died out. Celebrity without art is a fate which he rightly described as empty, corroding. So I was nervous that this impersonation might swerve that sadness.
Colin Elmer does a good Williams, with the idiosyncratic, carefully created Cockney- camp drawl and shriek and the sudden baritone growl, the “Nyeeesss” and “Aoow” and stop-messing-about existing alongside a skilled perfection of enunciation. He performers some of the actor’s memoir, about a 1930s childhood: a hairdresser Dad who hated effeminacy (“irons – iron hoofs – poofs”) and then army life in CSE in Singapore with equally contemptuous attitudes, tempered by soldierly affection for dressing-up and larking. He tells us tales of Edith Evans (great imitation) , of Noel Coward (even better, dear boy). and Binkie Beaumont. He romps through the comedy shows – lots of Just a Minute moments and a bit of front-row baiting. There is a sigh, but more affection , in his account of the twenty years of Carry On films: where there could be no intimacy of partnership there was comfort and real warmth in the professionalism and comradeship of such a ramshackle rep. Some anecdotes never fail: Charles Hawtrey’s old Mum’s handbag catching fire and being doused with a cup of tea.
The jokes are as good as they ever were, the impersonation almost spot on, but it is in the brief seriousnesses that Elmer is best: the prim Williams regret at the growing coarseness of the films as postwar whimsy turned more explicit, the real physical unease behind the incessant colon, haemorrhoid and fart stories, and the respect for theatre itself. In the final moments, almost with a shock, we see him take up the black diary on the desk and read some of the anguished midlife doubts and shatteringly self-aware self-blaming , bitterness. Hard not to reflect that he spoke for many in a pre-LGBT+ generation. Though ironically, he probably would have hated LGBT+ as vulgar.
So yes, in the end Tim Astley’s production and Elmer’s carefully worked performance felt like what it should be: a tribute. And, perhaps, an apology on behalf of a 20th century culture to those it kept on the margins.
Jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. To 14 August
NOT ONE TO STAR RATE REALLY…BUT HERE IS A BIG MOUSE FOR KEN ,WHO SPOKE FOR THEATRE