Reviewed – 31st January 2022
“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.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Pamela Raith
Watermill Theatre until 5th March
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