Review: To Be Frank at the Devonshire Park Theatre by Roger Paine

DAVID Benson, talented actor, writer and director, currently in the acclaimed ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ at London’s Old Vic, took time out to appear for one night in the first production of this year’s The Studio Season’.

Last seen two years ago on the Devonshire Park stage, in his own tributes to Kenneth Williams, and to Noel Coward, ‘To Be Frank’ was a poignant gallop through the life and times of much-loved actor and comedian, Frankie Howerd.

Probably best remembered by a generation for playing Lurcio, the Roman slave in ‘Up Pompeii!’on television, Howerd’s career spanned four decades before he died nearly ten years ago.

Benson sub-titled this solo show ‘The Secret Of Happiness’. As Howerd’s roller-coaster career was often punctuated by periods of depression and self-doubt it is easy to understand why.

In the first half, Benson traced Howerd’s life from his earliest days until he became renowned as the comedian who “broke the mould” and instead of simply standing telling hoary one-liners engaged his audience in apparently unscripted conversations, including such indignant chastisements as “Oooh, Missus!”, and “Ladies and Gentleman, PLEASE!”. These later became his trademark.

In like manner, Benson engaged the audience, leaving the stage to crown a gentleman with a lookalike-Howerd wig, and conducting an amusing question and answer session about Howerd’s film and recording career.

Clearly fascinated by gay comedians, as well as Howerd, Benson neatly summed this up as “the ability to show-off under lights”.

He also noted that Howerd’s chatterbox style punctuated with outrageous innuendo has survived, not least through the likes of Graham Norton.

This affectionate tribute closed with Benson - authentically Howerd throughout with rasping voice and wide-eyed winks - in mini Roman tunic modestly crossing and un-crossing his legs, sitting on a stool singing “Dream Your Troubles Away”.

Howerd would have approved.