Between 1951 and 1960, once a week virtually every radio set was tuned to the BBC Home Service and families would sit around listening to the madcap stories being transmitted on The Goon Show. At the heart of the show was one man, a comic genius by the name of Spike Milligan. For many youngsters, this name may not instantly draw gasps of recognition, but Spike was a comic genius of the first order and it was a sad day when he died in 2002. However, if you missed him, there is a chance to get a feel for the man with A Sockful of Custard at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington.
A Sockful of Custard is the work of Chris Larner and Jeremy Stockwell, two men who definitely know their Milligan. It is not a documentary by any means, but takes the audience from Spike’s early life in India, through to the family moving to the UK, his part in World War II – or as Spike memorably called in in his autobiography “Hitler, my part in his Downfall” – and on to the post-war years and the birth of the Goon show.
There are examples of Spike’s work, with Jeremy taking on not only many of the characters that Spike made his own but the other members of the Goon show as well. And, I have to say, Jeremy’s Spike is absolutely spot on. I occasionally catch an old episode of the Goon Show on Radio 4 extra – the best thing in radio since sliced bread – and Jeremy has caught every inflection, pause and piece of verbal dexterity that made Spike stand out. Chris acts as a sort of narrator for the show and plays many other characters from Spike’s life – plus a couple of musical instruments.
The show is difficult to describe as it is played out in a meta-narrative (scripted but play it as if it wasn’t) style, so there are lots of twists, turns and unexpected things going on throughout – rather like Spike’s comedy itself. On the whole, this works well but there were a couple of times when I felt the pace dipped slightly. The humour is pure Spike Milligan and not everything translates well for a twenty-first-century audience but, the majority of it is really entertaining and very funny.
It is obvious that Chris and Jeremy love Spike and all his works, and this really comes across towards the end of the show where the two of them reminisce about the time they met their hero. Simple stories but very touching, they really demonstrate the depth of feeling the two actors have for Spike.
Overall then, A Sockful of Custard is a lively eighty five minute canter through the life and works of a true comedic genius. No, it’s not a biography so much of Spike’s tale is omitted – but, as the boys say, if you want to know his life story, then read a biography. However, I did learn one fact that really elevated Spike further in my consciousness, his first name was Terry, a truly great name shared by many an unsung genius. One other thing to note from this entertaining and enjoyable production, from now on the duration of a production will be measured in metres rather than time, and coming in at around 4.5 metres, A Sockful of Custard is the perfect length to keep Spike’s memory alive and bring him to the notice of the next generation and the one after.
Review by Terry Eastham
In the year of his hundredth birthday, Spike Milligan – granddaddy of modern comedy – looks back on his life with an hour and a half of laughs, songs, philosophy, and utter utter silliness. Chris Larner and Jeremy Stockwell – two men with beards – sift through the madness and find only more of it.
A Sockful of Custard is a celebration of the British comic legend Spike Milligan – a man of great sensitivity, insight, and comedic invention, who redefined the landscape of British comedy on stage, radio and TV. Playing not only Spike himself, in all his guises, those who surrounded him, and themselves, Larner and Stockwell break down what made Spike tick, as well as the immense influence he has had on their careers and lives.
Jeremy Stockwell plays Spike Milligan, following his sell-out success playing theatre maverick Ken Campbell in Terry Johnson’s new play Ken at The Bunker, earlier this year. He has appeared in West End and National Theatre productions, and TV comedy series including Spitting Image. He is also known as a director, most recently directing The Angelos & Barry Show, The Thinking Drinkers, Are There More of You, How to do Acting (Properly), and The Very Perry Show, which won Best Comedy Show award at the United Theatre Solo Festival in New York in 2017 – all of which are playing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
A Sockful of Custard
Playwrights and Performers Jeremy Stockwell and Chris Larner
Performance Dates May 16th 2018 – May 26th 2018, 7.45pm
Running Time 90 mins
Pleasance Theatre, Carpenters Mews, North Rd, London N7 9EF