Ying Tong is the first play in a projected "Dead Comedians" trilogy. Roy Smiles intends to follow this biography of Spike Milligan and the Goons with Tony Hancock and perhaps most ambitiously, Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce together.
The director Michael Kingsbury has already succeeded in bringing radio comedy to the stage with the Round the Horne Revisited series but this is not quite the same animal. Ying Tong does have some re-creation of Goon scenes and many jokes but it has a darker heart.
The setting gives the game away. This is a room at the St Luke's Psychiatric Hospital in London's Muswell Hill. In 1960, after overworking, this is where the straitjacketed Spike Milligan, "a man who uses jokes to deflect pain" was sent to recover his wits.
Here he has the kind of dreams that are more usually associated with drug addicts, especially those attempting to escape their addiction. He is haunted by his war experiences, as well as colleagues and friends. These include doctors looking like Goon Show MC Wallace Greenslade and Peter Sellers' other great creation, Dr Strangelove.
Milligan also relives his life with the highs and lows that characterise manic depression. This means that we see his great friendship with Harry Secombe, a man whom he met in wartime and who supported him through the even scarier peace. Peter Sellers was not nearly as close, nor apparently as pleasant.
The Goons drift in and out with a strong sketch opening the second half as they search for the centre Milligan's Brain. This gives cameos to the actors who happily become Neddy Seagoon, Eccles and best of all, Major Bloodknock.
The actors have fun but don't seem to relax into the parts. James Clyde is touching as the suffering Milligan without looking or sounding too much like him. He and Peter Temple's Sellers only really become their characters when they themselves are in character.
Christian Patterson sounds like Harry Secombe, conveys much of the great Welshman's character and charm; and as a bonus has a nice tenor voice.
Ying Tong will appeal to the millions of Goon lovers still lamenting the loss of their heroes. Its mix of farce and biography is unusual and could also chime with those interested in seeing into the mind of a (famous) manic-depressive - The Tears of a Clown who doesn't know how to be happy.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher