Growing up in the late 1950s and early 60s there was no getting away from The Goon Show, especially if you had young parents. The Goons permeated British entertainment like a virus, a force that spread and infected a post war world of entertainment with a new found virulence. To that point comedy was all about stand up, mother-in-law gags and misogyny in general. The Goons lampooned authority and it lampooned its own home at the BBC with the greatest force. And at the somewhat unsteady helm of that phenomenon was one Spike Milligan, something of an outsider in many ways, war worn, mentally damaged and filled with the fire of rebellion. Along with him came rising film star Peter Sellers, himself no ordinary character when it came to his personal life and Harry Secombe, an all round entertainer with a passion for silliness.

Together they made up The Goons, a vibrant and anarchic troupe of entertainers sticking more than one finger up at the establishment and for the most part riding on the crest of that wave of success. All that is except Milligan.

It’s this aspect of Spike Milligan that Nick Newman and Ian Hislop explore in their new play, and despite the hilarity and silliness it’s not an easy ride. Milligan’s war experiences leave him damaged, his confidence is shattered and that confidence we discover is further destroyed by the attitude of the hierarchy at the BBC. The writers have used a wealth of internal memos and letters between the BBC and Milligan to show how Milligan’s talent was underplayed and under-paid. He was paid less than Sellers and Secombe who are repeatedly referred to as “the talent” whilst Spike is merely the writer, a theme that we later discover from the writers of this new work is one that still remains.

It’s a finely balanced piece of work, we the audience are of course expecting Goonery, silliness abounds, but so too does the darker side of Milligans declines into self doubt and depression.

The director Paul Hart has done a marvellous job of putting these two elements of a troubled genius together and the use of physical theatre throughout and a clever set on several levels by Katie Lias helps transport us from war torn Italy to London with ease.

Peppering the evening with short pieces from the lady in sound effects dept. is a great comic device and throughout the supporting cast play their multiple roles with style and with conviction. Margaret Cabourn-Smith is perfection, as is Robert Mountford lurching as he does from BBC Exec to military commander. Jeremy Lloyds Secombe is wonderfully sympathetic and simultaneously silly and Patrick Warner’s Sellers is an ego driven representation that borders on psychotic as his fame and foibles come to the fore.

Robert Wilford is Milligan and it is a portrayal of Spike that reveals the deep seated issues that the man, and those around him, had to deal with throughout his life and career. It’s not an impression either that depends on mimicry of the comedy voices but a performance that allows us to see the real man behind that mask of merry mayhem.

The play spans only the Goon years, but those years were clearly the turning point for comedy and entertainment. Milligan was the catalyst that gave rise to so much more, without him would we ever have seen the Pythons, or Izzard or in fact any of the comedy scene later branded “Alternative”? I think not.

Milligan went on to become a respected writer of fiction and verse, but he was never far away from his demons and one hopes that at some point Newman and Hislop might explore further the career of this great icon of British comedy.

The play is good, the evening both moving and entertaining, the humour tinged with bitterness and sadness throughout. Much as I liked the use of physical theatre between episodes I also felt once or twice that they were a little too long and slowed down what was otherwise a cleverly paced evening.

Andrew Kay

Theatre Royal Brighton

11 October

Rating: ★★★★☆

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