Writers: Ian Hislop and Nick Newman
Director: Paul Hart
The influence of Spike Milligan on the world of comedy cannot be understated, but like many visionaries, Milligan had a troubled life that both fuelled and scupper his work. This new play looks at a very specific period with Milligan’s life as he writes and performs in the classic BBC radio program The Goon Show as it begins to grow into an international phenomenon, and the pressures that come from such success.
It’s the early 1950s and Milligan is a thorn in the BBC’s side. His absurd comedy and exacting demands pit him squarely against the top brass within the corporation who simply can’t understand what is funny about people doing silly things. This clash of generations is the drive behind the initial scenes of Spike, but as The Goon Show becomes a hit with the public, the focus changes to the pressure on Milligan to produce the scripts, and the negative affect it has on his mental health and personal relationships.
Robert Wilfort brings perfect manic energy to the role of Spike and he is rarely off the stage. Jeremy Lloyd delivers and eerily accurate portrayal of Harry Secombe, and Patrick Warner does his best playing the enigmatic (and underwritten) Peter Sellers. The cast of ten all work hard to portray multiple characters and technically it all looks and sounds very good too. However, the whole somehow doesn’t equal the sum of all of these parts, something which can probably be almost entirely blamed on the script.
Hislop and Newman’s script takes jokes and sequences from Milligan’s works (particularly The Goon Show) and peppers them throughout. Sometimes there are snippets of recreations of the Goons recordings or rehearsals, although frustratingly these are never more than a few lines. Other times these gags and routines are used within the ‘real world’ scenes such as a running joke of Spike having the time written on a piece of paper (lifted directly from The Mysterious Punch-Up-The-Conker episode). These are of course funny but do little but reinforce the comic genius of Milligan, Sellers and Secombe by showing that nobody can deliver this sort of nonsense quite like they could. The actors here are all very good, but the delivery of the jokes feels like a copy of a copy, generating an urge to simply go back and revisit some old recordings of the show.
The flip side of Milligan’s personality was his issues with mental health. Milligan was bi-polar and suffered from ‘battle fatigue’ during the war. We are occasionally transported back to his wartime experiences within the play, and although this informs his personality within the main timeframe, these brief scenes fail to add much meat to the narrative. In fact, that is the big issue here: the overall thrust of the story. Choosing a small but significant time period with Milligan’s life to paint a picture of the man is fine, but despite some major events within this time (his first marriage, the birth of his first child, the success of his “life’s work” The Goon Show, his attempted suicide, and his attempted murder of Peter Sellers due to delusional paranoia) nothing is given much time to make an impression. This feels very much like a play based on Milligan’s Wikipedia page, delivering information about the man but very little insight. This is illustrated perfectly in a scene between the pro-Milligan producer Denis Main-Wilson (James Mack) and an antagonistic BBC exec (Robert Mountford) which clumsily delivers a ream of facts and exposition about the history of The Goon Show which although interesting, don’t really belong in a dramatic play.
Tonally too, the play has issues. Is it a comedy? Or a dark drama? Or a dark comedy drama? Sadly it gives the impression of being both all and none of these at the same time, making it difficult to warm to the story or the characters. The writers perhaps should have chosen between a recreation of Goon recordings (like the hugely popular Round the Horne play) or something darker and more surreal that would better suit Milligan’s personality.
Spike is tonally unsteady, haphazard and inconsistent. And although both Milligan and The Goon Show could also be described in this way, one can’t help but feel that they both deserve something better than this.
Runs until 22nd October 2022.