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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Ying Tong
New Ambassadors Theatre Spring 2005

Roy Smiles' new play, coming to London from the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is a salute to legendary comedian Spike Milligan and the even more legendary Goon Show.

It is frequently very funny, but I have a hard time thinking of anyone to recommend it to. It tells fans of Milligan and the Goons considerably less than they already know, and non-fans considerably less than they would need to know to understand what all the fuss is about.

A reminder: the Goon Show was a radio series of the 1950s that influenced just about all absurdist British comedy since. It starred Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan but, while the first two just showed up each week to read the scripts, Milligan wrote them for ten years. The strain intensified his predisposition toward bipolar swings, and he had the first of what would become a lifelong series of breakdowns and crippling depressions.

Smiles' play finds Milligan in a mental hospital in 1960, trying to get the Goons and their pressures out of his head, but victim to a string of memories ('Oh no!' he cries, 'Another flashback!'), fantasies (His psychiatrist turns into Sellers as Dr. Strangelove) and real visits from Sellers and Secombe, with Spike and us always unsure which is which.

Along the way, there are a couple of short pastiche recreations of the show, reminding fans of the much-loved characters and gags (The play's title itself comes from one of the show's catchphrases).

But it doesn't add up to much. Neither author, director Michael Kingsbury or actor James Clyde seem inclined or able to give any sense of the deep horrors of clinical depression, as Spike just lies in bed or jumps about making wry jokes and having rather jolly hallucinations.

Nor does the play seem interested in understanding the connection - if any - between madness and creativity. (Manic depression is generally agreed to be the product of a chemical imbalance, but the play takes the sentimental route of blaming Spike's on his wartime shellshock.) Nor do we get actual recreations of the Goon Show, in the manner of Around The Horne Revisited, just Smiles' pastiches.

Which leaves us with the surface historical and biographical material, which is familiar to most and probably not particularly interesting to the rest. Moreover, it is full of trivial but distracting inaccuracies.

I don't want to sound like an obsessive Trekie, but the fans of the Goons for whom this show is presumably intended will surely catch all the factual errors and anachronisms. The plot turns on the fear of the others that Milligan's breakdown will doom the show, ignoring the fact that he had had earlier breakdowns and other writers had filled in successfully. Spike hallucinates Secombe in Oliver and Sellers in Dr. Strangelove before either film appeared, and the play ends with his finding sanity in the inspiration to write his war memoirs, about ten years too early.

None of these is important in itself, except that they call attention to themselves and away from the play, and they could so easily have been avoided.  That's just sloppy playwriting.

James Clyde doesn't look or sound much like Milligan, but he does occasionally hint at the man's unhappiness. Peter Temple gets some of Sellers' funny voices right (but so could every British teenager of the 1950s), but creates a character who seems based more on what we know of the later Sellers than the young man, and if Christian Patterson is more successful with Secombe, that is in part because Harry's persona was something of a self-parody to begin with. Jeremy Child does yeoman work in a number of supporting roles.

Gerald Berkowitz
 

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Review - Ying Tong - Ambassadors 2005