Writers and Directors: Chris Larner and Jeremy Stockwell
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
We are living through a particular period of comedy nostalgia, looking back at some of the UK’s finest post-war writers and performers. Earlier this year Seabright productions presented a warm tribute to Croft and Perry in Dad’s Army Radio Hour, while television has celebrated the 20thanniversary of The League of Gentleman, along with a dramatization of the Morecambe and Wise story. And now tribute is being paid to the absurdist humour of Spike Milligan in A Sockful of Custard.
Chris Larner and Jeremy Stockwell’s two-hander, playing at the Pleasance Theatre for a fortnight, takes an interesting approach to biopic, charting a rough outline of Milligan’s life from boyhood in India, to working at the Grafton Arms pub near Pimlico with the leading lights of 1950s and 60s comedy, before finding fame with his radio show. Each moment is illustrated with a loving recreation of a Milligan sketch or anecdote that amply demonstrate the performers abiding admiration for their hero’s work.
This is all set in a meta-narrative – scripted but pretending not to be – in which Larner and Stockwell discuss the show’s structure written out on prompt cards, interrupt scenes, talk over each other to provide biographical details directly to the audience and recommend particular bits of “Milliganalia.” The overall effect is one of competitive chaos in which Stockwell gives an impressively accurate performance as Milligan, while Larner fills in the surrounding roles while acting as unofficial compere.
At 85-minutes, there is plenty for Milligan fans to enjoy from the musical interludes including the dustbin dance, to the poetry and renowned sketches that reference life in India and his time in the army. Larner and Stockwell cannot hide their schoolboy enthusiasm for the work and their delight at standing in for their idol, even during his stint in Oblamovin 1964 which he mostly ad-libbed, but there are also flickers of enjoyment in impressions of other greats of the era including Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Terry Thomas.
While the performers are having a wonderful time, not all of the humour quite finds its mark for the audience, with several scenes failing to raise more than a smattering of laughter. Using the loose chronological structure works well to a point, with Stockwell channelling Milligan to grow increasingly irritated with his colleague, but A Sockful of Custard does start to meander towards the end, finishing the account of Milligan’s life in 1964 before they swap affection details of real-life encounters with the man himself many years later.
During their final encounter, Stockwell rants that “theatre is not a Wikipedia entry with lighting”, actively drawing attention to the backbone of their show which is also its biggest failing. Hanging the sketches and re-enacted scenes from the details of Milligan’s life is an interesting approach, but if you can find original copies of the sketches on Youtube then what reason is there to watch two superfans recreate it on a stage? A trip down memory lane is lovely, and there is clearly so much affection in their work, but what Larner and Stockwell want to add to our knowledge of Milligan and his influence on modern comedy could be clearer.
Runs until 26 May 2018 | Image: Contributed