BENITA Collings’ happy voice comes down the line, fresh from the first day of rehearsal in Sydney with the cast of the hilarious Senior Moments comedy reveue which opens in Perth this month.
It might be almost 20 years since she gave up her gig as presenter for Play
School on the ABC but her enthusiasm and charm appear as strong as ever.
Benita is perhaps best known for her long-running stint as a presenter for Play School starting in 1969, a role she held for more than 30 years spanning 400 episodes. Along with John Hamblin and Don Spencer she was one of the longest serving cast members.
“They would only make 45 programs each year split between five couples so you only worked 10 days a year and the rest of the time we were off doing theatre, film and television. But it’s lovely to come back and tread the boards as they say.”
Apart from Play School, Benita has been a stage and screen performer, appearing in Australian television dramas The Sullivans, The Young Doctors, Sons and Daughters, The Restless Years, Homicide, A Country Practice and others. In film, she appeared in the feature film Knowing, as the mother of Nichols Cage’s character John.
Benita hasn’t visited Perth since the Play School concerts back in the early 2000s when she played Perth and Bunbury.
“I say to people when I come to Perth I can look this and that up, but mind you I am really working.”
There is a sense that Benita is really enjoying playing in Senior Moments which will have visited Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney before Perth. She describes it as a comedy revue about older people and the young people they have to deal with. So it’s sort of like how do the older generation cope with the younger generation. There are some lovely moments in the show when that comes out strongly.
“There’s one sketch called Old School and it’s a sendup of Play School and in it we do fun things such as nursery rhymes like Rub a Dub Dub Three Men in a Tub… that’s a valid lifestyle choice and I am not judging it. Another one is Star Light, Star Bright, Hope I Make It Through the Night.
“In the sketch Old School, I am not being Benita but Miss Jane. I would never ever perform in Play School the way I do in Old School so there’s lots of fun with all the cast being different characters. I tell stories and they become characters in the stories and act it out and it really is a lot of fun – a hoot.
“There are sketches, songs and performers who are old enough to know better. The cast of Senior Moments are old friends with John Wood, Max Gillies and Kim Lewis who I worked with in television way back in the 70s, so it’s like old home week.
“We all came together in Sydney after the boys rehearsed in Melbourne – the cast is split between Sydney and Melbourne – and so far everything has worked well.”
The popular Geoff Harvey is on piano and Benita says the cast and people are delighted he is part of the show.
What drives her?
“As I said to someone a while back when I walk on stage or walk on set, I’m home, that’s how it is for me. It’s something I have had all my life and I love and enjoy it, it’s my place to go to.
“We were all talking about the fact there is a show like this and it has an audience. It’s not as if anyone won’t come. When we played in Sydney at different venues a year ago people came and laughed and laughed. This time we have a new cast and we are really looking forward to it. It’s not just for older people but young people who come back later and say: “that was so much fun, I so enjoyed it,’ So it’s not just for oldies.
Benita lives in the Sydney suburb of Camperdown and says she is very happy there.
“Lots of people even now recognise me. Some have children and grandchildren so if you go back to when Play School started in the 60s these people were tiny tots then and are now grown up with children and grandchildren. They approach me and say, “Oh Benita I watched you on Play School so that is a good drawcard.”
Outside the theatre, she is a member of a choir at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital which has a nearby cancer hospital, Lifehouse.
“Patients there are being treated and other patients come and go, so the choir is made up of ordinary people like me and ex-cancer patients and people still coming in for treatment.
“They join the choir and sing and it’s terrific music therapy. We have funding for another three years which is terrific.”
After Senior Moments, Benita isn’t sure what awaits for her the rest of the year.
“But that’s the way it is for actors, they often don’t know what their next gig is. Luckily that has never bothered me, I don’t fret and worry but believe something will happen and it does.”