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

 

 

Assassins at The Watermill – review

Production of Sondheim’s musical hits the target

★★★★

Production photo of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins at The Watermill Newbury UK
Assassins at The Watermill. Photo: The Other Richard

Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is one of his lesser known musicals. Having seen this production of it at The Watermill, I understand why. There’s no story, no engagement with the characters and, like the would be assassins, it’s hit and miss. On the plus side, you do get a fascinating look at men and women who attempted and sometimes succeeded in assassinating American presidents. You are also treated to some great music and amusing lyrics and, in the case of this Watermill production, an entertaining performance that hits the bullseye.

In this fantasy musical with a book by John  Weidman, all the would be assassins get together at a funfair where they are given their own special guns and cajoled into going for the big prize if they shoot a president dead. The musical is an exploration of what that prize is. The answer, and this is not a spoiler, is fame.

We learn something about each of these would be assassins, first John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln, finally Lee Harvey Oswald who shot John Kennedy. It’s by no means chronological and the various stories intertwine. We see them as failures, mentally unstable nobodies who have been let down by the American Dream which promises that everyone can succeed.

Although we never sympathise with this unhinged bunch of people, we do hear some great tunes. Peter Dukes as Leon Czolgosz (who killed President McKinley) sings one of the best- The Gun Song which describes the number of hands involved in the manufacturing process. Generally Stephen Sondheim’s score offers pastiches of various forms of traditional and popular American music. It carries us and the assassins along with the joy of America while contrasting with the grubby truth revealed before us and through his lyrics.

Another National Anthem sums it up: ‘There are those who keep forgetting That the country’s built on dreams.’ Or as another song says: ‘Everybody’s got the right to be happy.’

It’s a fast moving, slick production from Bill Buckhurst. The Watermill has a small stage but the 15 strong cast manage to fill and move round it with military precision, choreographed by Georgina Lamb. They also play instruments, so to say they are talented is an understatement.

Production photo showing Eddie Elliott in Assassins at The Watermill Theatre
Eddie Elliott in Assassins at The Watermill Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard

I don’t like to pick out individual performances from this excellent ensemble, but I’m going to. Eddie Elliott is the delusional but hyper confident Charles Guiteau who expects to become ambassador to France and shoots dead President McKinley. Mr Elliott plays him with great pizzazz, jumping around the stage and shaking hands with the audience and rushing to the scaffold with a joyful gospel I’m Going to The Lordy. Lillie Flynn as the Balladeer, a kind of narrator, has the strong punchy voice of a classic musical singer. Sara Poyzer’s neurotic Sara Jane Moore gets a lot of laughs as her mind and her gun fire in all directions.

Inevitably on a stage as small as The Watermill’s, the set is minimal but Simon Kenny has cleverly created a fun fair feel particularly by showing the presidents’ faces like targets in a shooting gallery.

When it comes to the climax- the assassination of JFK- the back of the set spins round to become the windows of the famous Book Depository. All previous assassins led by Wilkes Booth (a chilling portrayal by Alex Mugnaioni)  gather to nudge the suicidal Oswald to pick up the rifle.

The previously black comedy becomes serious and even sentimental which makes the end inconsistent with what leads up to it. Presumably Sondheim and Weidman decided this particular assassination was still too raw in their and our minds. Perhaps, unlike Oswald, they lost their nerve. 

Assassins is performing at The Watermill in Newbury until 26 October 2019 and then transfers to Nottingham Playhouse where it runs from 30 October to 16 November.

Click here to watch the YouTube video review of Assassins

Paul Seven Lewis was given tickets to see Assassins by The Watermill Theatre

This review was amended slightly on 7 October for consistency.