Best known for his impersonations of Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd, for his fifth solo show David Benson has moved on from being metaphorically haunted by the spirit of dead comedians to a sometimes humorous examination of ghosts themselves.
Starting and ending in darkness, with no set and just a few props and sound effects, Benson makes the most of his engaging stage presence and talent as a storyteller to take an entertaining if undemanding look at the supernatural and paranormal. He may not necessarily succeed in suspending our disbelief, but he's adroit in creating a spooky atmosphere and appealing to our imagination.
Benson straight away establishes a strong rapport with the audience, inviting people to share their own ghostly experiences. Later, he adopts the persona of a camp Brummie phoney medium called Kev – encountered at a spiritualist meeting during his research for the show – who uses Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as his spirit guide to put members of the audience in touch with dead loved ones.
Benson mixes autobiographical anecdotes with enactments of the supernatural from literature, theatre and film (though the former may well be as fictional as the latter). He claims to have an open mind, half-way between his sceptical father and his superstitious grandfather. His father, a doctor, not only doesn't believe in ghosts but discounts the possibility of life after death - "we go to sleep and never, never, never wake up" – whereas his grandfather seemed to believe in everything from ghouls to little green men.
It transpires, though, that the show's underlying theme is not so much Benson's fear of people coming back from the dead but of death itself, in particular cancer, which killed his grandfather. The apparition that he sometimes sees lurking in the shadows around him is a vision of his much older self, a memento mori.
The spectre of cancer crops up in a macabre story by EF Benson (apparently a distant relation) about avenging caterpillars with crab-like claws, beautifully performed by Benson, as are scenes from the horror film The Innocents (based on Henry James' subtle study in high anxiety, The Turn of the Screw). But the highlight is probably Benson's abbreviated version of MR James' classic ghost story Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, which was told to him as a ‘true’ bedtime story when a boy by his grandfather – an unreliable narrator if ever there was one.