Theatre & Events

Spike – Theatre Review

It was twenty years ago that Spike Milligan left us to go to that Bedsitting Room in the sky, heralded no doubt by the sound of the Mukkinese Battle-Horn, while at the same time reminding us that his epitaph should be that he’d told us he was ill.

Two decades without the man who had once called our new King – the artist formerly known as Prince Charles – a “little grovelling bastard” on national television, before writing to him afterwards to state that he supposed a knighthood was now out of the question. An anarchic, freewheeling force of nature, Milligan was somebody whose impact upon popular culture spanned across generations, and changed the face of British comedy in the most profound of ways.

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Having already been a major influence on the Monty Python team in their formative years, Milligan’s Q series debuted in 1969, and managed to pip them to the post by doing exactly what they were intending to do with their new show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Pythons managed to pay tribute to the man himself by giving him a cameo role in their 1979 movie Life Of Brian, having discovered that he was in Tunisia purely coincidentally while they were filming there.

Milligan came to the public’s attention during his time as the chief creator, main writer and co-star of the BBC radio series The Goon Show, appearing alongside Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, and – for the first 38 episodes – Michael Bentine. It was both a breath of fresh air and a shock to the system, full to the brim with absurdist and surrealist humour, and jokes which were taken to their illogical conclusion. Compared to the rather more stolid wireless offerings hailing from Auntie Beeb, The Goon Show was nothing short of revolutionary.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Spike – the new play from Ian Hislop and Nick Newman – is a delve into the man and his creation during the period when it was on air, giving us a look into just what it took out of him to make a nation laugh during a time of austerity, and a period of mourning after the death of a monarch, themes which are still resonant today. Radio comedy was a strange beast then, filled with endless catchphrases and such bizarre concepts as basing a show around a ventriloquist act. Milligan – and The Goons – shook up the status quo, which left feathers ruffled, and noses out of joint.

The temptation with any biographical pieces based upon the lives of comedians is to take the ‘tears of a clown’ approach, amping up the sadness and pathos, and leaving the audience feeling just how broken the subjects were. Thankfully, Hislop and Newman come to praise Milligan, not to bury him. While we do get an insight into the various forces which shaped the man himself, such as the effects of World War II and PTSD, it also gives us light to contrast with that darkness, and Spike continually gives us plenty of laughter, reminding us all how much of a comic genius Milligan was.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

The play leaves us in no doubt that Milligan put everything he had into The Goon Show, leaving him in states of nervous exhaustion and manic episodes. We see how much of a battle he constantly had against the Establishment, whether that was the Army or the patrician, paternalistic BBC. In doing so, Spike takes us back to a time when British society was far more repressed and repressive in many ways, the stiff upper lip being the order of the day, and giving no quarter when it came to signs of emotions or vulnerabilities, seeing these as weaknesses not to be openly discussed.

When it comes to casting, every part is filled to perfection. Robert Wilfort is our Milligan, and inhabits the man fully, making him sympathetic and deeply human, not just some wild caricature, which it would have been tempting to lapse into. Jeremy Lloyd’s Harry Secombe is ebullient and jovial, a haven of positivity and jocularity. Peter Sellers is brought to life by Patrick Warner, which is quite a challenge given that even Sellers had no handle on precisely who and what he was truly like, once stripped of his various characters.

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The whole ensemble is a powerhouse of talent, delivering laughs aplenty throughout. Worthy of note are James Mack, playing The Goon Show producers Denis Main-Wilson and Peter Eton, as well as Robert Mountford, who encapsulates the stuffed shirt mindset of typical BBC execs in the 1950s. In fact, there is no weak spot in the entire company, and a special mention should go out to Margaret Cabourn-Smith as Janet, the plucky BBC sound effects person whose ‘jolly hockey sticks’ persona belies her no-nonsense attitude in dealing with chauvinism, and steals the show.

Spike is a truly whirlwind theatrical experience, manic and frenetic, in keeping with our subject. Transitions between scenes are breathtakingly choreographed, with a frantic yet carefully controlled energy, moving us from a radio studio, to a battlefield, a psychiatric hospital, a public house, and many more locales in a matter of seconds. Spike is a poignant and moving, yet also wildly uproarious experience, celebrating the creative powerhouse that was Spike Milligan: Goon, but definitely by no means forgotten.

Spike: The Play is touring the UK until 26th November.

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