Colin Elmer

Review: Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams, Alma Theatre

The Apollo Theatre Company’s Cult Figure: Kenneth Williams is touring England until the end of May, and its performance at the Alma Tavern last night (Wednesday 16 February) was engaging, entertaining and well received by its audience.

Colin Elmer plays the man himself – and has done so for the company for the last seven years in both this production and Apollo’s celebration of Round The Horne. The play asks a great deal of its singular actor, and Elmer delivered a convincing and sympathetic performance throughout.

The play is predominantly a celebration of Williams and his work. Its narrative is biographical, with insight into his early working-class life in London and his escape from a bullying father and the prospect of a humdrum working life through exposure to the delights of performance through the military’s Combined Services Entertainment. Punctuated with highlights from his career – great jokes, funny stories, memorable catchphrases and recreations of his extraordinary characters – the audience also witnesses his ascent to the heights of fame and his years as a leading member of the UK’s Golden Age of Radio. It also covers the nation’s adoption of television and the effect if had on his career and explores Williams’ pride and affection for the team that created the Carry On films that he is, disproportionately, perhaps now most famous for – as well as his sadness, having not found a successful TV ‘vehicle’ in the way other radio stars were able to, over his transition  from working and beloved comedy actor to self-parodying talk and game show personality.

You could expect a biographical examination of Williams to hang from the dichotomy of his great success at making others laugh and the personal sadness of his final years – as well as the ambiguity of the nature of his death. While the production addresses this towards its close, it does not dwell on it long, preferring instead to act predominately as a celebration of Williams as a performer – and provide insight into him as a man. Elmer’s performance is a great success, particularly in his ability to ad lib and interact with the audience in Williams’ mischievous style. His tone becomes quite conversational at times as he sets up the next story, which helps bring a sense of authenticity to his delivery. He fosters an atmosphere of great intimacy with the audience which, at The Alma, seemed delighted to share in memories of Williams’ repertoire – as well as his exceptional wit, timing and cynical but sparkling percipience. But the production is more than just shared nostalgia or mimicry, enjoyable too for those of us with fewer memories of Williams’ peak.

Joe Williams

The play runs again at The Alma tonight (Thursday 17 February): more details here More details of the tour are here: