No one can accuse David Benson of being a wallflower.  Since exploding onto the fringe theatre scene in 1996 with a blistering portrayal of Kenneth Williams, his uncanny impressions have won him national acclaim.  However, this is no ordinary comedian; his one-man shows penetrate the psyche of his characters and himself, exposing raw and often unpalatable truths.

The writer-actor has developed a unique brand of multifaceted performance that shuns theatrical conventions, relishing in the freedom of the fringe experience.  Under the spotlight’s glare, Benson’s own life entwines with his characters, exploring what he calls his “personal connection” to engage the “emotional immediacy” of powerful story-telling.  However, the candid revelations that have made his name weren’t always as forthcoming.

His acting career started with the Fringe First Award winning plays by Edinburgh’s Grassmarket Project in 1990, having been discovered working in a bookshop.  Consequently, under the gaze of director Jeremy Weller the actor began his “unofficial training”, reluctantly trialling sketches about his strained relationship with his mother.  This proved pivotal, as the scenes for Mad (1992) spurred him onto a theme he would revisit for years to come.

These sketches reverberated in his mind for some time, struggling to find a dramatic outlet, as he wryly comments: “No one’s going to go and see an unknown actor doing a show about his mother.”  Fortunately, the publication of an entertainer’s diaries in 1994 inspired Benson’s semi-autobiographical hit Think No Evil of Us: My Life with Kenneth Williams (1996).  The show was a sensation, winning another Fringe First Award as he toured nationwide, ending in the West End.

The performer’s passion for drama began at school, where he struggled to fit in amid a troubled upbringing.  He said: “I was a very isolated child, as you know my mother was crazy – paranoid schizophrenic – I had a very strange childhood growing up, and my escape was to go into my bedroom and listen to the Goon Show.”  From these lonely hours, he discovered both a talent for impersonating his heroes such as Spike Milligan, and a refuge from harsh reality.

“I could liberate something in myself by doing that.  Suddenly I could stop becoming this sort of rather strange awkward lone wolf but actually started to get respect and appreciation, and started to come join the human race.”

Fast forward to Edinburgh Fringe 2010 and he is still defying expectations to do more “dead camp comedians”.  This “pressure and expectation that I delight in upsetting” has lead to a Fringe First Award for his political documentary Lockerbie: Unfinished Business.  Complete with “wintry laughs”, it’s a hard-hitting tale based on Jim Swire’s unpublished story of an alleged injustice.

While the actor enjoys an established reputation in the fringe arena, he ruefully admits he is “still fighting for attention”.  As a result, he feels frustration with the glass ceiling that he is yet to break through to reach a wider audience.  He said: “[As] much as I love touring, writing my own shows and creating my own work, I’ve always felt that it should be an adjunct to a mainstream career.”

This year, the warm winds of spring find Benson rehearsing for his first mainstream role at the “drab citadel on the Southbank” – a drama student’s dream.  He will be acting alongside James Corden in Nicholas Hytner’s Royal National Theatre production of One Man Two Guvnors.  Even though his casting has come as a surprise, he maintains an air of modesty, viewing the opportunity as just another stepping-stone for a seasoned performer.

“I feel very strongly that my whole life has been a journey from my bedroom as a child, my private world into the wider world.  I still find it extraordinary that I’m allowed in somewhere like the National Theatre to do it, because for me it’s still my private obsession.”

The David Benson Season is playing at Croydon’s Warehouse Theatre until 17 April.  For further tour dates see his website.

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