It’s Victorian Liverpool. Children have consumption. Neglectful mothers spend the cash their kids have earned in honest work on gin. Abusive fathers fall into the docks and drown. Part-musical; part-heartstring-tugger, Her Benny is all sentiment – and the perfect set-up for the sort of hard-luck melodrama that plays well to scouse audiences.
Whatever you might think of the source material there’s little to fault in the production, as is usually the case at the Royal Court. It’s a strong cast – even the youngsters played by a variety of budding actors from around Merseyside give a good account of themselves – and the musical numbers come off well. But pitched somewhere between Oliver!, Brookside and Cathy Come Home, Her Benny doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve, it’s clad in a Lady Gaga meat dress.
The source material may be trite or touchingly idealist, depending on how you look at it. That’s perhaps unsurprising given it was written by a didactic Methodist preacher, but it’s fair to say writer, director and lyricist Ann Dalton does little to leaven the affair.
Benny is a scouse Oliver Twist, his sister is a tiny waif with a cough. All Benny wants to do is protect her from their drunken parents, buy her a scarf and find more than coal to eat for dinner. Through a series of fortunate events they end up with a cheerful, kindly and childless couple and all seems well. Then Nell dies. And everyone breaks into song: A song about how everyone has a right to dream, sung by a crowd of assorted Victoriana surrounding a tiny girl’s still-warm corpse.
The naked melodrama of a doomed, consumptive child deadpanning lines such as ‘Jesus will look after me’ veers between hilarious and appalling. It’s extraordinary emotional manipulation – a demonstration of bathos so breathtaking it makes Sophie’s Choice look like Bambi. Her Benny evokes the brutal hardships of a time of biting austerity, but it’s pitched as a sort of Victorian Disneyland, where everyone has a heart of gold, a song in their heart and a cliche on their lips.
Needless to there are various tribulations that Benny overcomes by being virtuous, hard-working and saying his prayers. Everything comes good in the end – Benny even manages to lose his scouse accent – and what we’re left with is another variation on the waif tale with some musical numbers that you may well find rather familiar: basically Oliverpool Twist.
Linzi Germain adds some welcome laughs in a fairly straight-laced production and the dance routines are well choreographed but it’s hard to get past the fact that Her Benny has little emotional range, not much to say and doesn’t appear to have much of an overhaul in the 25 years since it debuted.
Her Benny, then. A heartwarming tale of child abuse and infant mortality. Still, you won’t go wrong in this town having a bunch of working-class scousers singing a song about how much they love their city.
Until 10 February