It's an odd experience to hear an audience wildly applaud a catchphrase even when not uttered by its originator. Yet when the Leeds crowd goes ape at the line "He's fallen in the waa-ter!", it's not nostalgia pure and simple, but also a sign that they have accepted the structure of Roy Smiles' play about Spike Milligan and The Goons.
After years as artistic director of the little White Bear pub theatre in south London, Michael Kingsbury is now in demand as a result of his helming the West End transfer (and, now, national tour) of +Round The Horne - Revisited+, Brian Cooke's assemblage of his and his colleagues' 1960s radio comedy scripts. At first, Ying Tong looks as if it is ploughing the same furrow: actors representing Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and announcer Wallace Greenslade stand behind a row of old-fashioned BBC microphones, reading from a Goon Show script. The first difference, although not immediately discernible, is that all of the "Goons" material here (apart from individual catchphrases and the like) is written by Smiles, and it all sounds plausible enough. The obvious moment of divergence, though, is when James Clyde's Milligan falls silent and then has a breakdown on mic.
At this point the cleverness of Smiles' writing becomes apparent. Peter McKintosh's "studio" set serves simultaneously as a room in the north London mental hospital to which Milligan was admitted after his major nervous breakdown of 1960. From here on, the reality of the hospital, Milligan's hallucinations, fantasies and flashbacks all interweave (sometimes with scant sense of chronology) to create a portrait of what had driven him over the edge.
It's no surprise to find Milligan's condition ascribed to three main factors: his sense of comprehensive unbelonging, as the son of an English mother and an Irish father raised in India; the immediate and ongoing pressures to produce Goons scripts; and the continuing legacy of his first breakdown during the Italian campaign of World War II. Indeed, at times these observations are on the trite side. More often, though, the writing animates these biographical facts. It's generally known, for instance, that at one point the cracked Milligan became convinced that his salvation lay in killing Sellers; here, we are shown the attempt itself, with a convenient Secombe also present in Sellers' flat to act (as he regularly did in so many matters) as intermediary and general buffer zone between the two antagonists. And the design coup which takes Milligan back to the horrors of war is simple yet breathtaking.
There are a number of pickable nits in the performances: James Clyde's accent as Milligan is north rather than south London, Christian Patterson's Swansea lilt is thicker than Secombe's. But such cavils are petty in the face of the remarkable truth of these portrayals. Clyde, in particular, is excellent on the self-consciousness in voice and gesture that Milligan regularly used as a defence against too much unmediated breast-baring. Peter Temple, too, catches the cold, ambitious selfishness of Sellers as described by Roger Lewis and other biographers. The good heart of Patterson's Secombe is feelingly apparent, and that paragon of English probity Jeremy Child alternates as Greenslade and the psychiatrist as well as taking a number of hallucinatory cameos including a Jewish leprechaun. Richard Taylor's painstaking original score is augmented by pre-show tapes of musical interludes from the radio programme, featuring harmonica player Max "Conks" Geldray, who died only last month. The stage show is co-produced by Michael Codron, who presumably had one eye on a West End opportunity; he is unlikely to be disappointed. Needle nardle noo, indeed.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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