Nick Newman & Ian Hislop
Karl Sydow, Trademark Films and PW Productions with Watermill Theatre
Grand Theatre, Blackpool
Trying to bottle the mercurial comedy genius of Spike Milligan into a stage play was never going to be easy.
A whole post-war generation grew up honing their impressions of his radio Goon Show characters, such as Bluebottle and Eccles, or learning the lyrics to the "Ying Tong Song". It is those same fans who largely make up the audience here.
Writers Nick Newman and Ian Hislop (whose previous work on The Wipers Times or Trial By Laughter have mined humour from recent history) call it a ‘dramatic representation’ of Milligan, rather than attempting to simply recreate episodes from the radio series. Nevertheless, the start of both acts is framed by an introduction to the way in which those programmes created the many sound effects that were essential to the humour.
And Spike is at its best when it briefly re-enacts a seminal spoof of George Orwell’s 1984, broadcast in 1955, and lampooning the Big Brother Corporation. Milligan’s biting relationship with the BBC ‘hand’ that fed his output is a recurring theme throughout the play, along with the after-effects of his war service.
His often-fragile mental state was both the source of his subversive humour as well as his complex and volatile personality.
Spike does not shy away from the incidents where Milligan threatened to kill his fellow Goon Peter Sellers, or died his own comedy ‘death’ on stage in Coventry. But in also playing these for laughs, it makes for uneven and sometimes uncomfortable entertainment.
In the central role, Robert Wilfort never quite captures the surreal body language of Milligan, a performer who was happiest corpsing at his own gags, or grinning knowingly at his audience through the fourth wall. Jeremy Lloyd comes close to the chuckling good nature of Harry Secombe, but Patrick Warner can’t quite muster the urbane womaniser that was Sellers.
Seven other members of the cast play a variety of orbiting '50s characters, but as a tribute to a man who was to define anti-establishment humour for generations ahead, Spike rather misses the point.
Indeed, the post-show Q&A with Newman and Hislop proved more enlightening, and often funnier.
Full disclosure: I vividly recall Spike Milligan on stage at Manchester Palace Theatre in 1967 performing in his anarchic farce The Bedsitting Room. There was never any doubt you were in the presence of a chaotic genius.
Reviewer: David Upton