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SPIKE by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman at Theatre Royal Brighton

Terence Alan ‘Spike’ Milligan, was the co-creator and principal scriptwriter of BBC Radio’s The Goon Show which ran throughout the 1950s, the period this play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman deals with. In fact, in later life, Spike was a supporter of and contributor to their satirical magazine, Private Eye.

SPIKE by Ian Hislop and Nick NewmanThe play deals with Milligan’s continual battles both with the BBC and with his own mental health, diagnosed as bipolar disorder, severely affected by his time in the army during World War Two. It is written in the style of an extended Goon Show, with short scenes and many of the comedian’s jokes sprinkled liberally around. As such, it seems to deal too much with his disagreements with the Beeb, and not to delve deeply enough into the problems he had with not being able to produce weekly scripts for The Goons on time and his relationships not only with his colleagues, but also with his wife.

Having said that, the play is directed with energy by Paul Hart, who understands that the piece has to be fast-moving so that with luck the audience won’t notice the lack of substance!

Robert Wilfort is very believable as Spike, not over-acting the role, but being convincing by showing us the vulnerability of the real person. Jeremy Lloyd is the epitome of Harry Secombe, with a very passable tenor voice, as well as the trademark giggle – again not a caricature. Peter Sellers is in the hands of Patrick Warner, well able to imitate all the voices that Sellers could. The three work effectively together in the scenes from actual Goon shows.

Some of the best scenes, because they are the most naturalistic, are those with his first wife, June played by Ellie Morris with a tenderness and understanding no one else seems to show.

The two producers of the show, Dennis Main-Wilson and Peter Eton, continually fighting with the BBC’s head of Comedy (Robert Mountford), or so we are led to believe, are differentiated nicely by James Mack, and Margaret Cabourn-Smith impresses in a dramatically unnecessary role, that of sound engineer. Janet.

The set (Katie Lias) bears signs of having been originally intended for a much smaller stage, that of the 200-seater Watermill near Newbury; in fact in a more intimate venue might have the effect of making the play seem much more involving.

Aficionados of The Goon Show clearly enjoyed the play hugely, noisily showing their appreciation at the curtain calls, but I wonder if it will introduce Spike to a new, younger audience. If it doesn’t, it is a shame, as he was a huge talent, very influential on all forms of comedy.

Recommended to all lovers of The Goons!

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

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)

Theatre Royal Brighton
Until Sat 15 Oct 2022

Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
Tue 25 Oct – Sat 29 Oct 2022

King’s Theatre, Glasgow
Tue 1 Nov – Sat 5 Nov 2022

Richmond Theatre
Tue 8 Nov – Sat 12 Nov 2022

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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