“Dr Whom?” My Search For Samuel Johnson/Lockerbie: Unfinished Business (Online review)

“Dr Whom?” My Search For Samuel Johnson/Lockerbie: Unfinished Business (Online review)

Let me start with a confession. Last night I set out to watch the latest streamed play from The Old Vic – Mood Music by Joe Penhall. Unfortunately, I found it unwatchable because the vocal track was about five seconds ahead of the visuals. Highly disconcertingly this meant that one character was talking while another’s mouth was moving; after 20 minutes I felt forced to give up. I’m not sure whether the problem was at my end or theirs but I have to say after 99 consecutive days of reviewing this is the first time it is a case of mission abandoned and it left me with an unscheduled hole to fill. And then I remembered that a few weeks ago I watched and reviewed David Benson’s superb one man show about Kenneth Williams, Think No Evil Of Us on the Screensaver platform. I noticed at the time that there were two more of his shows on offer and resolved to catch up with them. Well, I finally made it, even if it was force of circumstances – perhaps the online theatre Gods were trying to tell me something.

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“Dr Whom?” My Search For Samuel Johnson comes from the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 and commemorated the 300th anniversary of Johnson’s birth. David Benson is, evidently, a fan and has amassed a great deal of knowledge, not to say an impressive array of books about the subject. Among these is a facsimile of the famous dictionary and in the first half of the show Benson guides as through the book’s construction and publication; apparently it took nine years and a team of eight helpers to get it finished. We are treated to some of the caustic definitions which Johnson wrote e.g. “oats – a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. Along the way we are given biographical detail about the subject, courtesy of James Boswell, and Benson conjures up the spirit of the man who possibly suffered from Tourette’s and whose brain never seemed to rest. In the last section Benson considers some of Johnson’s literary works and how the precepts he lived by are still relevant today.

Benson is an engaging host but this is not so much a play/show as an informal lecture. It’s an interesting one and I learned a lot but it lacks a truly dramatic element. He switches between Johnson’s real accent and a presumed literary voice while also giving us Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith, Joshua Reynolds and other luminaries of the period but the effect is not nearly as accomplished as in some of his other shows. On the other hand I was glad he resisted the urge to get into full costume and try and assume the character of the man – a hastily constructed wig does get an outing. The end of the show (there is a connection to Johnson but even now I can’t recall what) is Benson telling us how he met Michael Sheen on a train. Sheen had just played Kenneth Williams in a TV play – a part Benson had hopes of securing – and the slightly awkward encounter is an amusing coda to the evening. It is also the most interesting part.

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Benson’s Edinburgh show the following year (2010) was Lockerbie: Unfinished Business. In this he takes on the character of Jim Swire, father of Flora, one of the victims of the 1988 atrocity and a serial campaigner to get to the truth about what happened. The show opens with Swire taking us through how he constructed a fake bomb and smuggled it onto a plane to demonstrate to the authorities how simple this was to do – frighteningly so, it would appear. We are then given a straightforward and heartfelt narrative of the Swire family’s experience on the day of the bombing and the many years of campaigning which followed. From this account it is highly doubtful that justice was served and Benson brings to the fore all the political chicanery that was a background to the inquiry into the worst terrorist incident ever committed in Britain.

The monologue is presented very simply with occasional TV footage and some moving pictures of Flora Swire. A child singing a song is, I presume, the voice of the victim herself – chilling but highly effective. Benson does not set out to impersonate Swire but does a very convincing job at conveying the anguish of a father deprived of his child; indeed, he is on top form. In a chilling parallel he relates how Swire had a personal meeting with General Gaddafi whose own child had just been killed in a bombing raid. There are moments of quiet reflection where Benson allows the enormity of the situation to sink in and he gazes out into the audience clearly wrung out by the emotions he is portraying. The play is an engrossing study of a fight for justice and the truth and it is small wonder that it was shortlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. A riveting and essential watch.

Both one man shows are available via the Scenesaver platform. “Dr Whom?” My Search For Samuel Johnson  is available here and Lockerbie: Unfinished Business is available here  

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3 thoughts on ““Dr Whom?” My Search For Samuel Johnson/Lockerbie: Unfinished Business (Online review)

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