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SPIKE at Richmond Theatre

Spike Milligan was a comic genius, writer, poet, actor, musician, anarchist, and a crazy cat from Catford in South London SE6 – he paved the way for the revolution in post-war comedy. His epoch-defining creation The Goon Show (Salvador Dali meets The Magic Roundabout) blazed a trail for others to follow – Beyond the Fringe, That was the Week that Was, Private Eye, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Spitting Image, Harry Enfield and Chums and so the list goes on. As a Gooner myself, no not an Arsenal fan but a fan of The Goon Show 1951- 1960, my eyes lit up when I saw that Ian Hislop and Nick Newman had written a biopic about Spike. Let me say from the off that they do not disappoint. This is a wonderful tribute to Spike’s creative genius. Two of our best comic writers Hislop and Newman have been working together since Spitting Image in the 1980s. It takes a writer to know a writer and in Spike, Hislop & Newman have taken us deep inside the mind of this unique artist.

Spike UK Tour - Pamela Raith Photography.
Spike UK Tour – Pamela Raith Photography.

Spike focuses on the years 1953 to 1960 when The Goon Show was the comedy program on BBC radio. The play homes in on the recording studio at Broadcasting House in Portland Place. This becomes the battleground for the war Spike wages against the BBC hierarchy, Peter Sellers and the world. Through clever use of flashbacks, we get glimpses of what has made Spike. The first is his father. An Irishman who liked dressing up as a cowboy, he was ex-British Army Captain Leo Alphonso Milligan MSM, RA (1890-1969) who served in India where Spike was born in 1918. His mother was English, Florence Mary Winifred (1893-1990). So born in India to an Irish father and English mother already gives a sense of the in-betweenness that was to forge Spike’s comic vision. Outsiders who don’t belong make good writers. The second flashback is to Monte Casino in the Second World War. Here he was wounded, hospitalized and shell-shocked. He also had run-ins with the officer class. He was demoted for his perceived insubordination. The Goon Show‘s obsession with bangs and explosions clearly comes from these wartime experiences. Pre-war Spike was an amateur jazz vocalist, guitarist and trumpeter. During pre-war training at Bexhill-on-Sea Spike entertained his mates with music, stories and funny sketches. These then are the ingredients that go into the mix that creates Spike and The Goon Show.

Radio obviously is an auditory medium and so sounds are crucial. The Goon Show revelled in the possibilities of the comic soundscape. Margaret Cabourn-Smith as Janet gives a glorious display of the BBC sound effects. The outstanding thing about this play is its self-awareness. Everything you might have thought of the writers have anticipated. For example, Janet explains how her sound effects department creates these amazing sounds but that you won’t find her in the credits because in the 1950s BBC super talented women like Janet didn’t count. This self-awareness makes this show a delight. Every i is dotted and every t crossed; puns, parodies and playfulness abound. Take for example the send-up of all those BBC talk shows in the brilliant scene The Critics. Here three absurdly pompous radio critics analyse The Goon Show, they reference Aristophanes, Dean Swift, Lewis Carrol, Kafka, Ionesco and the Marx Brothers. It’s enough to make any reviewer cringe. One of the critics comes up with the phrase that The Goon Show is “shell-shock for the wireless“. So Hislop & Newman have already done the critical assessment of the show. That’s what I mean about the level of self-awareness on show here. It’s intimidatingly good. It leaves very little for us to say except perhaps sit, admire and be grateful.

If the writing hereabouts is top notch then the acting is superb. This is a first X1 without a weak player. There are strong performances from Patrick Warner as a smarmy Peter Sellers, Jeremy Lloyd convinces as a jovial Welsh singing Harry Secombe and Margaret Cabourn-Smith is very impressive as the BBC secretary Janet, the Critic and Female Reporter. Robert Mountford is very good as the BBC boss. But the stand-out performance is undoubtedly Robert Wilfort as Spike. Physically he is spot on, he looks like him, he moves like him, his hangdog expression is uncannily like him and his accent is very convincing. What’s brilliant about Robert’s performance is that he has captured both the comic achievement and the tortured man behind the mask. Not one or the other but both together. Now that’s hard but he has pulled it off. His one-liners are nothing short of astonishing. His comic timing couldn’t be bettered if you tried. And then the way he switches to reveal the anguish and the suffering behind the success is very poignant. He gives us a Spike that is human – all too human. He was a flawed genius. If King Midas had the golden touch then Spike had the comic touch but as he found to his cost that can be a curse. Being asked to be funny all the time is an impossible burden and it cost him and his family dearly. Was it a price worth paying? That is an open question. Go and see this wonderful show and make up your own mind. Spike’s headstone at St Thomas’ Church Winchelsea, Rye, has an Irish epitaph ‘Duirt me leat go raibh breoite’ (I told you I was ill)

5 Star Rating

Review by John O’Brien

SPIKE is an absurdly funny new play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman (The Wipers Times, Trial By Laughter, A Bunch of Amateurs) that delves into the inner workings of one of our most unique and brilliantly irreverent comedy minds.

Why go and see it?

I’m not acting crazy. I’m the genuine article.
It’s the booming fifties, and Britain is in the clutches of Goon mania as men, women and children across the country scramble to get their ear to a wireless for another instalment of The Goon Show.

While Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers get down to the serious business of becoming overnight celebrities, fellow Goon and chief writer Spike finds himself pushing the boundaries of comedy, and testing the patience of the BBC.

Flanked by his fellow Goons and bolstered by the efforts of irrepressible sound assistant Janet, Spike takes a flourishing nosedive off the cliffs of respectability, and mashes up his haunted past to create the comedy of the future. His war with Hitler may be over, but his war with Auntie Beeb – and ultimately himself – has just begun.

Will Spike’s dogged obsession with finding the funny elevate The Goons to soaring new heights, or will the whole thing come crashing down with the stroke of a potato peeler?

Starring Robert Wilfort (Gavin and Stacey, Bridgerton) as Spike Milligan, Patrick Warner (Peter Cook in The Crown, One Man, Two Guvnors and Play that Goes Wrong) as Peter Sellers, and Jeremy Lloyd (The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, Trial by Laughter) returning to his critically acclaimed role as Harry Secombe, with Margaret Cabourn-Smith (Motherland, Miranda, Buffering) as Janet.

Extracts from The Goons used with the kind permission of Spike Milligan Productions.

Produced by Karl Sydow, Trademark Films, & PW Productions and the Watermill Theatre.

Contains strong language, references to suicide, strobe lighting and loud noises (war sounds incl. gunshots and explosions and sudden loud music)

Richmond Theatre
Tue 8 Nov – Sat 12 Nov 2022

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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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1 thought on “SPIKE at Richmond Theatre”

  1. what a brilliantly written review. Positive, structured and knowledgeable. Mr O’Brien is a genius.

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