Spike Milligan embodied the truism that behind every great comedian is a great manic depressive. This West End play explores those two polarities: Milligan’s mad imagination as the creator behind The Goon Show, and why at his core he suffered such despair.
This tension, this fine line, between laughter and depression is a subject ripe for drama, and British writer Roy Smiles delivers a fabulous entertainment exploring the nature of Milligan’s unhappy genius.
With Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers, Milligan made comic history in 1951 when they went to air on BBC Radio as the Goons. The creative drive centred on Milligan as the writer until, after nine years, after writing 26 shows every year, he was desperate to stop. Secombe tried to coax more Goons scripts out of him. Sellers, the master of voices, also tried, albeit less pleasantly.
The play is set mostly in the London asylum where Milligan lies, sometimes in a straightjacket, awaiting their visits. Designer Michael Scott-Mitchell has created a fabulously cavernous, tiled cellar of an asylum, with endlessly receding arches artfully suggesting the impenetrable depths of the mind.
Milligan’s colleagues appear, sometimes in outrageous comic attire, and we are never sure if they are just Milligan’s feverish imagination, as he struggles to expunge them. Either way, they are very funny.
In one episode they even stage a jungle expedition deep into the mind of Milligan, through his ear, and all sorts of other adventures. They end up in Greece chasing thieves who have run off with his marbles.
Director Richard Cottrell juggles this Goon madness with aplomb. He is well served by Jonathan Biggins as the hilarious but coldly ambitious Sellers and David James as the portly Secombe, who holds everyone together with his Welsh charm. Geoff Kelso captures the comic mania of Milligan, and the compassion which feeds his comedy.
That surrealist and anarchic comedy of Milligan’s was a landmark, later inspiring Monty Python and the likes of Little Britain.
As for his despair, Milligan is finally revealed to be a shell-shocked victim of World War II. That experience inspired the constant Goon ridicule of all authority figures, especially in the army. But after the laughter, I still wanted from Kelso and the writer more insight into his pain.
Ying Tong: A Walk With The Goons has just opened at the Opera House Drama Theatre.