Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Reviews of "Lockerbie: Unfinished Business"

[Review by Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph:]

Last time we saw David Benson at the festival he was performing songs by Noel Coward in the clipped and high-class manner of the Master. His best-loved solo show to date, Think No Evil of Us, capitalised on his uncanny ability to impersonate Kenneth Williams.

So it’s quite a huge leap, then, for the actor to go all serious for a change and under-take the role of Jim Swire, the real-life doctor who has tirelessly campaigned to find out the truth behind the 1988 bombing of Pam Am Flight 103, which claimed his 24-year-old daughter Flora among its 270 victims.

Better known for his comedic impersonations, David Benson's latest production isn't just a stark contrast to what we expect from him - it's arguably his finest work to date.

It’s a leap Benson makes with absolute assurance in a performance that must rank as one of the most quietly compelling and finely judged on the Fringe.

As the first anniversary of the roundly condemned decision to release Ali Al Megrahi nears, Lockerbie: Unfinished Business, drawn from Swire’s own manuscripts, doesn’t hijack the occasion to make glib, headline-grabbing points. Swire’s position about the “Lockerbie bomber” is made abundantly clear towards the end: “The scandal is not that he was released but that he was ever imprisoned in the first place.”

The over-riding achievement of this concise, calmly delivered 60-minute address, though, is that it resists cut-and-dried conclusions and knee-jerk responses. It eloquently insists that the more carefully you look at the case, the more questions lie unanswered.

Part of its persuasive power lies in Benson’s own understatement. Tales of official obfuscation and obstruction are relayed with a wintry humour. There’s even matter for bleak mirth in a description of an encounter with Colonel Gaddafi conducted in a lavishly arrayed Libyan bunker lined with gun-toting female bodyguards.

Grief and anger are kept bundled under the cloak of British reticence. At times, we see the pain breaking through, as when, blinking back tears, he pictures the terrifying seconds on-board following the detonation. Such moments, almost unbearable to watch, bring home the fact that far from disqualifying Swire from his relentless quest for justice, his undying sense of loss underpins his mission with a humanity that has been woefully absent in far too many quarters for far too long.

[Review by Barry Gordon in The Scotsman:]

In Lockerbie: Unfinished Business, Benson plays Dr Jim Swire, the man who has sought (and fought) to bring those responsible for the murder of his daughter, Flora (as well as the other 270 passengers on Pan Am Flight 103), to justice.

There's not enough space to convey the raw emotion, depth and scope that goes into Benson's logical analysis as to why the attack took place, how it was achieved and, ultimately, not who was responsible, but who wasn't.

Controversy still surrounds this subject, 22 years on from the terrorist attack, public opinion largely divided on the matter. However, the best way to approach this show is to remind yourself that it's about a father who has lost his daughter.

Archive footage from the period, as well as a tear-welling cassette-recording of a song Flora sang as a seven-year-old, isn't a cynical ploy to tug at the heart-strings either, it's simply the truth.

Overall then, a story that many feel deserves to be told. As Benson as Swire says: "Justice is knowing the right people." Riveting.

[Review by Nadine McBay on the Big On Glasgow website:]

When we saw Abdelbaset al-Megrahi being given a hero’s welcome at Tripoli airport last August, many were appalled. Others found the sight of a mail jailed for the worst ever terrorist attack on UK soil being garlanded distasteful at best.

Indeed, in the ongoing furore since Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill gave the go-ahead to release al-Megrahi, the argument has been characterised as that between retribution for the killing of 270 people and compassion for a man supposedly in the advanced stages of terminal cancer.

And yet, to Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was on board that fatal flight, the scandal isn’t that al-Megrahi was released or seemingly refuses to die, the real scandal is that the Libyan was imprisoned in the first place.

Written and performed by Fringe veteran David Benson, this revelatory piece claims that the case against al-Megrahi hung on the involvement of his supposed accomplice Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, a man who was unanimously acquitted by three judges in January 2001. More shocking still, it claims that the evidence points to Iranian, not Libyan responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Based on his own interview with Swire, Peter Biddulph’s as-yet unpublished book Moving The World and other documentary evidence, including verbatim testimonies from the trial at Camp Zeist, Benson’s play is sober, meticulous and controversial – much like Swire himself. Briskly taking the stage, Benson shows us how Swire easily took a fake bomb onto a flight from Heathrow to JFK. ‘I made a lot of enemies with that stunt,’ he acknowledges, aware that to many – not least many of the grieving American families – he’s viewed as a deluded victim of a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, a man driven so mad by his loss that he’s sided with the ‘enemy’. (...)

Portraying Swire as the unshowy, level-headed GP that he appears to be on camera, Benson rounds out the character with credible moments of humour and anguish. It’s also to Benson’s credit that he’s compacted over two decades of material into a compelling 70 minute piece of theatre. Often breaking out of the monologue for moments of action, news reports or to play another character, he’s pitched the piece somewhere between docu-drama and presentation. You’ll need your wits about you, certainly, and though Lockerbie won’t have you reeling in the face of pizzazz and spectacle, it can’t help but lead you to question the official record of events.

It closes with footage of the actual Mr and Mrs Swire at their daughter’s grave and a shot of the memorial to all those murdered that night. It’s a reminder that Benson has taken on a lot here; from Swire and his daughter to the reputations and motives of countless witnesses, experts and pawns. Kirsty Wark was at this performance; perhaps some of those she’s interviewed will take note too. Essential viewing, whatever your own theories are.

[The performance can be seen at the Gilded Balloon until 30 August. A video about the play can be viewed on The Guardian website.]


  1. "Justice is knowing the right people."

    Now there's a quote!

  2. Actually the correct quote is: "Justice: easy when you know the right people," in relation to the release without charge of the members of the PFLP-GC after Operation Autumn Leaves in 1988.

    David Benson

  3. I'm no drama critic and I won't be able to see this in person. But I'm glad it's getting such reviews, and that the actor is so well-suited and fusing a possibly career-changing shake-up with this role. That's an investment and "value-added" and will boost Dr. Swire's legacy and influence.

  4. Indeed Adam, if only so many people on this particular blog didn't treat him like a lightweight!

  5. Kirsty Wark was there? She had a nerve after her behaviour when Salmond blew a gasket over Blair doing deals in the desert concerning Megrahi.

  6. David Benson.....thank you for clarifying.