“John Dagleish embodies Spike Milligan in a memorably empathetic way”
This tribute to the comedy legend Spike Milligan is the work of ‘Private Eye’ editor Ian Hislop and his colleague and friend Nick Newman. It coincides with the 20th anniversary of the death of this renowned writer of the BBC’s anarchic radio comedy show ‘The Goon Show’, which ran from 1951 to 1960.
Many under the age of 45 will be barely aware of Milligan, who as Stephen Fry, in the guise of a BBC announcer, points out at the end of the show, was comedic gold for generations that followed him. ‘The Goon Show’ was a brilliantly disruptive success for the Corporation, even if the managers there didn’t quite understand it. It remains available online to this day.
There are jokes and madcap nonsense by the box load in this warm and affectionate play which grew out of a reading of the extensive and argumentative correspondence between Milligan and the BBC. Spike discovered the BBC was run by the same officer class he’d resented in wartime. Why, he wanted to know, was the writer of the show paid a fraction of that given to the ‘talent’ Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers? And what was wrong with poking fun at royalty?
The play is structured as a loose series of chronologically arranged scenes beginning with the very early days of ‘The Goon Show’, just six years after the end of the Second World War. The BBC was male-dominated then. By way of balance, Margaret Cabourn-Smith opens the show as the likeably goofy sound effects girl who like her colleague the Head of Drama’s Secretary, ‘will some day run the place’.
Robert Mountford is the entertainingly preening BBC executive who is quick to give Spike a dressing down that flips him to the nightmares of wartime. John Dagleish embodies Spike Milligan in a memorably empathetic way. He has the look of Spike, who he imagines as a troubled and inward looking outsider, still fighting a war at the BBC.
Jeremy Lloyd gives an excellent impersonation of the young Harry Secombe and the trio of Goons is completed by George Kemp (of Bridgerton) as a suave and smooth-talking Peter Sellers. James Mack gives a tour-de-force performance as the harried Director of ‘The Goon Show’. Ellie Morris memorably plays Spike’s inevitably long-suffering wife, June, as well as other roles.
‘Spike’ is probably at its best in the second half when we see a Goon Show being recorded. If the ending of the play was slightly unexpected (and there was no ‘Ying Tong iddle-i-po’!), it was hard to imagine how else to bring down such a hugely entertaining show.
Spike Milligan once joked that he’d be remembered as the man who ‘wrote the Goons and then died’. This show is an enjoyable celebration of his life’s work and a feast of nostalgic fun that will delight audiences of all ages.
Alice and Fiona have been living in Rotterdam for seven years. They were only supposed to be there for one. It’s nearly New Year’s Eve and Alice is composing an email, and redrafting it, and spell checking it, and redrafting it again. She is trying to come out to her parents as a lesbian. But just as she is about to press send, her partner Fi delivers some unexpected news. Fi is a man, has always been a man, just wants to “stop trying to be a woman”. He asks to be called Adrian, the name his parents would’ve given him if they’d known he was a boy when he was born. The two characters spiral on different journeys, Adrian coming to terms with his gender identity, with the violence of being misgendered and the possibilities of hormones and surgery. Meanwhile, Alice questions her sexuality all over again, as she begins the process of accepting Adrian, and herself.
Jon Brittain’s script is a weaving explosion, each scene launching into the next (also thanks to Donnacadh O’Briain’s energised direction). The relationships between our four characters are gradually revealed, connecting them in different and surprising ways.
The set, designed by Ellan Parry, shows a black and white Amsterdam, splattered with pink, vivid purple, neon light, even covered with blue balloons at one point in the play. It isn’t anything hugely exciting but it doesn’t need to be. It allows for the different places the play takes us to, to be created, and for the story to be told. The mirrored door, throwing light across the audience every time it is opened is particularly lovely. Cleverly, even the details of the set, with backlit gendered toilet signs above a bar, are a constant reminder of the weight of gender, and the way we perceive it, in society. The fireworks thrown out into the audience – or seemingly so – are a really effective moment of lighting design from Richard Williamson.
The play is punctuated by some incredibly powerful and emotional images, but it is also laced with humour, and the actors find the balance between these moments really well. In fact the cast is strong all round. Lucy Jane Parkinson has a brilliant presence onstage, humourous at first, strong to the point of near aggression, deeply vulnerable when Adrian phones his mum to come out to her for the first time. A vivid performance of need and strength. Bethan Cullinane’s Alice is wonderfully played. Still closeted and unable to let go, she meets the vibrant Lelani (Ellie Morris) who takes her to parties and smokes weed with her. There is so much humour and life in this journey, and it is delicately undercut by Alice’s own struggles with her sexuality, and her frequently cruel way of processing Adrian’s transition. Elijah W Harris takes a couple of scenes to become grounded in the role of Josh, but when he does he is immediately likeable, and the relationship between Josh and Adrian in particular, feels warm and genuine.
This is a play through which you will laugh and cry. It discusses gender, sexuality, family, love and Rotterdam, and is delivered by strong, honest performances from a talented cast.
Reviewed by Amelia Brown
Photography courtesy I AM Marketing
Brighton Theatre Royal until 10th April then UK Tour continues