Actor David Benson has developed a whole range of one man shows over the years with which he has regularly toured and frequently appeared at Edinburgh. An expert mimic he has given the world accounts of both Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd, impersonated both Boris Johnson and Noel Coward (though not in the same show), conjured up Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland (in which they were together at a fantasy party). He has also developed one man pieces about the Lockerbie bombings and the life of Dr Johnson. It is in this mode that he tackles the historical incident known as the Cato Street Conspiracy in a show which premiered in Edinburgh in the summer of 2019.
Called simply Cato Street 1820 it is a thoroughly researched (apparently for four years) account of a plot to dispose of the then government by gate crashing a function that all the major players were attending and butchering the lot. The radicals involved were partly spurred on by the Peterloo Massacre of the previous year and wanted to rid the nation of what they saw as subsequent punitive laws against assembly and protest. However, just like the Gunpowder Plot before it, it was the perpetrators who paid the ultimate price as the projected dinner party turned out to be a counterplot to lure the malcontents into the open. Five of them were hanged and decapitated at Newgate in May 1820.
Benson, as always, is a committed and talented raconteur who with nothing more than his own abilities takes on the entire cast of characters involved and produces an entertaining if rather sobering lecture cum re-enactment.
The show is supposed to open with a song, but the technical equipment is “having a moment” and Benson has to fill in the gaps for ten minutes or so by getting started on the main narrative. Although this means an instant loss of energy and a rather low key start, it is actually quite fascinating to see how the actor gets himself out of the hole which technology has dug for him and has you rooting for him for the rest of the show that nothing else will go wrong. In fact, there are a couple of minor blips but as this stands as the only recording made of the piece there is nothing much which can be done and it’s not so prominent that it spoils the final result.
The rest is a clearly structured account of events relayed in the manner of a TV historian fully conversant with his subject. Some of the narrative is quite gruesome as Benson spares no detail of the barbarism of the age as he replays the execution day which was attended by a huge mob.
There are even moments of black comedy as we hear how the decapitating knife breaks and the executioner has to resort to Plan B (no spoilers). There are also a couple of interesting diversions along the way as Benson tells of his aversion to organised religion and the story of how he attended a Spike Milligan show in the wake of the Birmingham pub bombings which introduces a personal note to proceedings. We are also given a potted history of the song about liberty which one of the conspirators sang on the scaffold. There is an invitation for the audience to join in with this which closes the show; this time the accompaniment works perfectly.
Although the conspiracy was something I had learned about in my own days of A Level study (now that’s ancient history right there) it wasn’t something I had any in depth knowledge about so watching David Benson at work was educational and informative as well as, inevitably, entertaining. I believe the plan was for several performances of the show to be given for the two hundredth anniversary of the incident at around this time last year. Presumably they had to be postponed/cancelled as did the show he was working on with Jack Lane in which the pair played all the characters from Dad’s Army (click here). This latter was one of the last shows I saw live and brings back fond memories of when life was a little less troublesome. As Joni Mitchell sang: “You don’t know what you’ve got, ‘til it’s gone”