Spike by Ian Hislop & Nick Newman – review

An entertaining look at a comic genius but without his anarchic spirit

★★★

Production photo from Spike by Ian Hislop and nick Newman at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury UK
Spike at The Watermill Theatre. Photo: Pamela Raith

Spike by Nick Newman and Ian Hislop at The Watermill Theatre is a labour of love. Spike Milligan had a long association with Private Eye and the authors, both from the magazine, clearly feel great affection for him. However, they faced three challenges in conveying his comic genius, and weren’t entirely successful in overcoming them, despite devising an entertaining play

Firstly, I’m not sure that many people under 60 will know about Spike Milligan or remember The Goon Show. He was a brilliant comic writer and performer, best known as the writer of The Goon Show. Trouble is, the last Goon Show to be transmitted on what was then called the BBC Home Service was back in 1960, followed by a couple TV specials over the next decade or so.

It was Milligan’s surrealist and absurd humour that made The Goon Show a phenomenal hit. He was an acknowledged influence on future comedies and comics including Monty Python and Eddie Izzard.

After The Goons, Milligan continued to be a fountain of anarchic humour. He wrote poetry, plays, and books, and appeared in a number of TV programmes through the 70s and 80s. He died twenty years ago.

The Goon Show is still what he’s best known for and that’s what this play concentrates on. We see the early resistance from the BBC to the Spike’s revolutionary and rebellious style, through to the show becoming hugely popular. We also learn about Spike’s difficult personal life, his traumatic experience as a soldier in the second world war and his mental illness, and how the pressure of writing the Goon Show took its toll.

Secondly, the actors playing Milligan and his fellow Goons Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe cannot hope to recreate their genius: their voices, their timing, their understanding of each other, the way they perform as if they have just seen the script and are enjoying it as much as the audience.

Sensibly the cast don’t try to do impressions of the originals. Instead, they act out their own interpretation of these characters. Which makes it an interesting story about three friends but nothing like as funny as you might expect from a show about The Goons. The jokes are there, of course, particularly plays on words- a sign on Milligan’s door says ‘Do not disturb, I’m disturbed enough already’- but they cannot hope to deliver them with the power of the actual Goons. The voices can never be quite as ridiculous nor the irony as sharp.

Production photo of John Dagleish in Spike at The Wtermill Theatre in Newbury
John Dagleish in Spike. Photo: Pamela Raith

I’m not in any way denigrating the actors. John Dagleish as Milligan is an excellent comic actor with a great plasticine face and he plays his part with verve, giving a strong impression of a man on the edge. George Kemp as Sellers and Jeremy Lloyd as Secombe provide excellent support. Robert Mountford represents the stiff voice of authority very well. Margaret Cabourn-Smith, James Mack and Ellie Morris complete a talented cast.

The tortured comic genius is a familiar trope. Stories of artists rebelling against and being rejected by the establishment until they are finally embraced are familiar too. But, in the case of Milligan, it’s a tale still worth telling.

To beef up the laughs, the writers cleverly weave in an almost discrete story about the sound effects. Sound effects were an important part of The Goon Show. Spike Milligan set the challenge of producing surreal sound effects. Margaret Cabourn-Smith, in Joyce Grenfell mode, humorously explains how they were achieved. Perhaps because the audience has no ‘original’ to compare this with, she gets the most enthusiastic response of the evening.

Director Paul Hartwho is The Watermill’s Artistic Director, keeps up a good pace, so you won’t be bored.  Katie Lias helps with a set designed to change quickly from a recording studio to various offices, a battleground, a pub and Spike’s home. She uses the back of the stage well. Often there are Milligan-ish cartoons telling us the location of the scene, and projections high up suggest the state of Milligan’s mind.

Which brings me to the third challenge.  In a play mainly about Milligan’s mental state, how do you convey his exploding mind? Yes, John Dagleish sparks with happiness and crumples with despair, and yes, the story tells us how, in his mind, his battle with army officers becomes a battle with the BBC authorities. It’s an interesting observation of him but the play doesn’t get inside his head. It’s conventional in a way that Milligan would never have been.  In producing a tribute to Spike Milligan, maybe Nick Newman and Ian Hislop should have injected their play with more of their hero’s anarchic spirit.

Spike is at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury until 5 March 2022

Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the producers.

Click here to watch this review of Spike on YouTube

 

 

The Goon Show – Tour – review

The Goons- Still crazy after all these years

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Production shot of Julian Howard McDowell, Colin Elmer and Clive Greenwood in the theatre tour of The Goon Show
Julian Howard McDowell, Colin Elmer and Clive Greenwood in the touring production of The Goon Show

The Goon Shows are classic radio comedy. Many of us have caught up with them through the eternal repeats on Radio Four Extra. Part of the appeal is the imagination that radio encourages you to exercise. That makes it quite a challenge to present three of Spike Milligan’s Goon Show scripts as stage shows.

Apollo Theatre Company get round that by making it seem like we’re the audience for a recording of the show. That way we can continue to imagine the explosions, falls from great heights and other crazy happenings.

Click here to watch the YouTube review of The Goon Show tour

The team of Julian Howard McDowell, Colin Elmer and Clive Greenwood make a good stab at imitating Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. They are well supported by Tom Capper and musicians Rachel Davies and Anthony Coote.

What was brought home to me was just how well these shows were written. Yes, some topical references are sixty years out of date but Spike Milligan’s surreal humour seems as fresh as anything written today. I laughed a lot, even at the tongue-in-cheek corny jokes.

Nostalgia and laugh-out-loud comedy as Goons go on stage

And there was the undeniable warmth of nostalgia for those long departed comic geniuses and their familiar characters like Bluebottle and Eccles.

If the production is short of anything, it’s the sense of anarchy and spontaneity that Sellers and Milligan brought to the original recordings. You know, the corpsing and improvisation (whether genuine or not). To be fair, I did see this production at its first performance at Salisbury Playhouse and I’m sure that missing element will come as the cast relax into both the show and each other’s company.

If you want an evening of nostalgia and laugh-out-loud comedy, I recommend you see The Goon Show at one of its many stops around the UK.

The Goon Show is at Salisbury Playhouse until 8 September and is touring to Churchill Theatre Bromley, Yvonne Arnaud Guildford, Everyman Theatre Cheltenham, New Alexandra Birmingham, Brewhouse Theatre Taunton, Trinity Theatre Tunbridge Wells, Theatre Royal Winchester, Richmond Theatre, Lighthuse Poole, Blakehay Weston-Super-Mare, Octagon Theatre Yeovil, Princess Theatre Torquay, Haymarket Theatre Basingstoke, Theatre Royal Brighton, Key Theatre Peterborough, The Capital Horsham, Lichfield Garrick Theatre, Leatherhead Theatre, Norwich Playhouse, Theatre Royal Bury-St-Edmunds, Waterside Theatre Aylesbury, Grand Opera House York, South Hill Park Bracknell, Mercury Theatre Colchester, Theatre Royal Windsor, Theatr Clwyd Mold and Leicester Square Theatre London (11 November). For links to box offices, go apollotheatrecompany.com

Further thought: To be fair, theatre is also a medium that encourages imagination.

Watch the YouTube review of The Goon Show below