Spike is Spike Milligan, and this play gives us a glimpse into the man’s life through his creation and run of the Goon Show, a now often forgotten (and now often politically incorrect) 1950s radio comedy show which mostly lives on today, as the announcer concludes the show pointing out, through the people it has influenced. These include The Beatles (most notably their films, Christmas records to their fans and the B-side to Let It Be, You Know My Name (Look Up The Number), Monty Python (for whom Milligan cameoed in their film Life of Brian), Eddie Izzard, Douglas Adams, and many more. Though its other chief claim to fame is as an early notable leading role for Peter Sellers, who would later star in the Pink Panther series, amongst other things.
But this play, produced by Karl Sydow, Trademark Films, & PW Productions and the Watermill Theatre and directed by Paul Hart, isn’t a dramatic making-of feature for an old BBC radio show. Milligan struggled throughout his life with the repercussions of his war service and his bipolar disorder, and this play is a glimpse into him through a specific period of his life, the script by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman recreating him through a dramatic ten-year episode (and, many would say, career peak), and using his own brand of comedy (sometimes through verbatim quotation and sometimes through imitation) rather than the oft-used and misused technique of simply speeding through a cradle-to-grave narrative.
Stars Robert Wilfort (Spike Milligan), Patrick Warner (Peter Sellers), and Jeremy Lloyd (Harry Secombe) play perfectly their historical counterparts, their passing physical resemblance bolstered by clothing, props and performances which evokes without slavishly imitating. As many historical plays do, this one has limited used for its female characters with Margaret Cabourn-Smith and the others often relegated to secretarial or long-suffering wife roles, references to period sexism, and the straight-to-audience explorations of the technical breakthroughs of The Goon Show, but they and the rest of the supporting cast still shine in their straight historical and more clownish composite characters.
As befits a show about a technical innovator, the play makes good use of its space, with Katie Lias’s set creating depth through multiple rooms behind glass, to evoke studio recording areas and flashbacks to performances, nightmares and the battlefields of World War II. Just as Milligan & co got laughs through sound-effects, Tom Marshall and Ruth Sullivan do through their uses and imitations of them, when they’re not attending well to the equally important background sounds for scene-setting.
Though I unfortunately missed the first five minutes due to my bus’s brave attempt to almost double a 75 minute journey, Director Paul Hart and writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have cleverly navigated the pitfalls of a clear passion project, balancing facts with the necessary amount “spirit rather than letter of the law” approach to history to produce not only a play which will appeal to fans of these historical figures and creations, but also a hilarious comedy for those who know nothing about them. And I know I can say that, as the closest connection the person I saw this with had to the source material was recognising the words “Pink Panther”, and she still thought this was excellent.
Playing until 5th November, https://spiketheplay.co.uk/
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 1st November 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★